The two-year program, designed to offer Alberta Motor Transport Association members a choice of three trucks, has drawn strong interest
With the market for medium- and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles so new, finding trucks to test drive is near-impossible.
So, last fall, when the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) offered its members an opportunity to join a hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicle demonstration program, it was probably no surprise that more than 70 carriers signed up.
The two-year project, the first of its kind in Canada, is one of a series of initiatives underway in Alberta involving the AMTA, industry partners, non-profit agencies and government to reduce emissions through the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell technology. It started in February and has been rolling out in stages as vehicles become available.
“Our members want to achieve that zero-emission target and they want to figure out ways to adopt new technologies, but no trucking company is going to buy a truck before trying it out,” says Trevor Van Egmond, who, until recently, was the AMTA’s senior manager, industry advancement and point person for the demonstration program (Van Egmond recently left the AMTA; his comments in this story were obtained in interviews with Electric Autonomy prior to his departure).
Three Class 8 vehicles
AMTA, a non-profit representing carriers and suppliers in Alberta’s transportation sector, is trialling three Class 8 vehicles as part of the initiative. To begin, it took delivery of a leased zero-emission hydrogen truck from Hyzon Motors in December. In March, it added an existing diesel truck outfitted with dual-fuel conversion technology from Hydra Energy to run both hydrogen and diesel. That vehicle underwent baseline trials conducted by PhD students at the University of Alberta before joining the program. Finally, the association has also ordered a Nikola Tre hydrogen fuel cell electric truck, which is slated to arrive by the end of the year.
Participating carriers are able to use the trucks in their own operations, pulling their own freight, for two-week stints.
Like with any trial, the project has hit some snags along the road. The launch of a Suncor refuelling station near Edmonton has been delayed, which impacted the ability of carriers to test the all-hydrogen Hyzon over long distances. “We’ve only been able to fill up half a tank at a time using a hydrogen tube trailer from Air Liquide hooked up to the truck,” explains Cory Shumaker, head of business development-Americas, for Hyzon. “That works until about half pressure. At full pressure, our range is just over 500 kilometres.”
Due to the smaller range, AMTA has only been able to extend the Hyzon demo to local carriers with back-to-base type operations, whereas the Hydra was available on a first-come-first-serve basis and could be used over long distances. Despite this limitation, those who have had the opportunity to drive the zero-emission vehicle have been impressed.
“On the flats, it would just pick up and go. The electric motor response is instantaneous, which is impressive. It’s also very quiet, you can’t hear the unit running,” says Dennis Davis, assistant terminal manager for Caron Transportation Systems, which trialled the truck in June, using it to shuttle loads from terminal to terminal in the greater Edmonton area.
He admits the vehicle had a bit of trouble on hills. “It’s only a four-speed transmission. When you get on a grade it’s dropping so much speed before it will pick up.” Nonetheless, it was a worthy experiment. “It’s definitely something to look at in the future if they upgrade the transmission,” Davis adds.
Other challenges came during the winter when Alberta faced some extreme cold temperatures. “We’d done cold weather testing before, so the initial trial temp wasn’t a factor,” Shumaker says. But at minus 40, the Hyzon’s air compressor froze, and the vehicle wouldn’t start, a common occurrence with diesel trucks as well.
The issue was quickly remedied by changing some sensors, Van Egmond explains. “Every OEM is going to have to go through cold weather testing and they are going to have to tweak things as they go,” he added.
Long-range highway driving
While the initial number of carrier signups was substantial, Van Egmond says the AMTA hopes the number will increase further once the association receives delivery of the Nikola. While he stresses that battery-electric and hydrogen technologies will both be required to bring down transportation emissions, he says the potential of hydrogen trucks like the Nikola model, which can travel 700 km on a full tank, make them ideal for long-range, highway driving.
Other advantages of fuel cells, Hyzon’s Shumaker adds, is quick refuelling compared to battery ZEVs and weight. “Hydrogen is so light. While you do have to harness that in a tank and metal structure, the weight pales in comparison if you are holding all your energy in lithium-ion batteries.”
AMTA will continue to collect data throughout the trial and also do freight assessments with individual carriers to help them determine which type of vehicle is right for their needs. “The response from our members has been great but it hasn’t been consistent,” says Van Egmond. “They want to see what else is out there.”