Dr. Andreas Gorbach has been in the truck business for over 15 years. Now he is helping to shape the future of CO₂-neutral transport. His focus: the fuel cell. The CEO of Daimler Truck Fuel Cell GmbH & Co KG on deliberate rethinking, big challenges and his own creative freedom in times of transformation.
Mr. Gorbach, what do you think: are we well on time or are we too late when it comes to reducing CO₂?
We as a society are running behind the achievement of the goals. The reduction of CO₂ emissions was clearly too small in the last decades and this has to be done now. That is why the "European Green Deal" is, in my view, exactly the right impulse. The Daimler Truck AG has been looking into alternatives at a much earlier stage and has already clearly committed itself to the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition, I am increasingly observing that people, also in my private environment, are aware of this challenge and are actively taking it up.
Do you also make this observation with yourself?
In the past, the issue of sustainability moved me a little less in comparison. This attitude has changed massively in recent years. Is it because of the age? Is it because of the children? Is it because of the presence of the topic in recent years? It is difficult to say. I was always convinced that people would find a solution once the problem was there, as they have done with every change before. Today I see it differently. We have to react faster, even before the problem arises. I try to travel less, eat vegetarian food, buy local products and question many things that I used to accept.
It sounds as if your job and your private commitment were a perfect match ...
You could say that! It started at work and then spread to private life. The more you deal with the issues, the faster a rethink starts.
A rethinking that is now also required of commercial vehicle manufacturers.
Not only "required", but also wanted. The reduction of CO₂ is the only way. We are the authors of sustainability. Mobility as a whole contributes around 17% to the global CO₂ footprint of people. This shows that it is not just about transport, but about all industrial sectors, and some may be easier to transform than our industry. But nobody should hide behind the others here. The Paris targets for reducing CO₂ emissions can only be achieved if all industrial sectors make their contribution. Just like we did with trucks in the transport sector. The reduction of CO₂ can be right not only ecologically but also economically, if the right impulses are given.
Keyword “impulses”: You are in a constant dialogue with politicians. What do you expect from government intervention?
The dialogue is in full swing and very constructive. All parties involved have understood that hydrogen - as in other sectors of the economy - is essential for decarbonisation in the heavy duty vehicle sector. However, words must now be followed by concrete action. We need state steering interventions to make locally CO₂ neutral trucks competitive, i.e. to compensate for the cost disadvantages. Only then will customers invest in CO₂-neutral trucks. What is needed in particular is a Europe-wide conversion and scaling of the toll according to CO₂ values, whereby CO₂-neutral vehicles should receive a significant toll reduction, a targeted support programme for the purchase of vehicles, a nationwide charging and hydrogen infrastructure and uniform standards for the transport and refuelling of hydrogen.
The local CO₂-neutral transport until 2039 in Europe, Japan and North America is the ambition of Daimler Trucks & Buses. How do you intend to electrify the vehicles?
We intend to achieve local CO₂ neutral transport with two technologies: battery electric vehicles and the fuel cell. We are convinced that we will only be able to cover our customers' multi-faceted range of applications in a truly CO₂-neutral way if these two fully electric drive technologies are used in a complementary manner. The decision between battery and fuel cell is ultimately up to the customer and depends on the application.
Cars have focused on the battery. Why do you stick to both technologies?
We have various applications in commercial vehicles that require appropriate alternatives. In general, the rule says: the lighter the load and the shorter the distance, the more likely a battery electric truck will be used. The heavier the load and the longer the distance, the more suitable the fuel cell is. In the passenger car segment, the focus in the area of alternative powertrains is currently on battery electric drive - not least because of technological progress in energy density. This is mainly due to the fact that most applications in the passenger car segment, from smart to SUV, can be well covered by an electric battery. The situation is different for the commercial vehicle segment. Especially when we are talking about flexible and demanding long-distance transport applications with particularly long ranges. Here, the mapping of a battery electric powertrain, accompanied by a more massive load on the battery, would mean an enormous reduction in transport volume and payload. In addition, there would be longer charging times, which in turn would not be in the interest of all end customers.
Do our end customers even want these products?
The interest is great and is constantly increasing. In addition to the desire to be actively involved in the transformation, many customers also believe in the economic benefits still to come in this decade, for example through toll exemptions or perspectively low costs for hydrogen and electricity.
Where do we stand compared to the competition?
At Daimler, we can build on over 25 years of research and development on fuel cells. We are also one of the most experienced players in the truck sector. Only a few in the world have these qualifications. I like to say that the future needs an origin. And yet: competition is strong, we are also investing massively and we have to work hard to turn our good prerequisites into a lead for our future series products on the market.
Former competitors are now also becoming partners. Daimler Truck AG is planning a joint venture with the Volvo Group.
In Daimler Truck Fuel Cell (DTFC), we have combined all fuel cell activities of the entire group. Following all official approvals, the Volvo Group will buy into Daimler Truck Fuel Cell as the second shareholder, making the organization a joint venture. In addition to all the legal issues, this restructuring was a major step, especially for many colleagues. Some of them have also changed companies in the course of the restructuring. I am very glad that almost all of them have gone along with it. This shows courage and the enormous commitment of our team to the fuel cell. I also sense a great conviction on Volvo's part to do the right thing here and to join us in our efforts to focus on the fuel cell in trucks. This shared belief can turn competitors into partners. In the core truck business, we will clearly remain competitive.
Does a company manage the transformation only with partners?
No. Transformations can often be achieved by our own efforts. In principle, this would also be possible in this case. However, in this case we are much more successful in the partnership. We can share investments, increase scales and fight together for infrastructure development.
In September, Daimler Truck AG celebrated a major milestone in Berlin. With the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Truck, a concept truck was presented that makes tomorrow's technology tangible. Which technologies are we talking about here in concrete terms?
The GenH2 truck shows that we are serious about fuel cell vehicles for long distance transport. The approach of our colleagues from vehicle development is to integrate both a battery system and a fuel cell system into the vehicle. A fuel cell truck also has an electric drive, whereby the battery is mainly charged via the fuel cell and can be much smaller and lighter than in a purely battery electric vehicle. The heart of the powertrain is certainly the fuel cell system from Daimler Truck Fuel Cell. This is where the conversion of hydrogen into electrical energy takes place. The idea behind it is older than the invention of the combustion engine.
So why is the fuel cell experiencing this "new" hype right now?
Even though the invention of the fuel cell is older than the combustion engine, it has not yet become established in the mobility sector. This was mainly due to the fact that there was always a cheaper energy source that also has a high energy density: oil. It is only the requirement for CO₂-neutral mobility that makes an alternative to oil necessary, another energy source with a high energy density, but which does not contain carbon: hydrogen. In addition, there is the prospect of bringing hydrogen to a similar price level to diesel at the filling station.
Explained to an non-expert: How does the fuel cell work in a truck?
A fuel cell system will be installed in the place where the combustion engine is located today. In this system, hydrogen from a tank reacts with oxygen from the air to form water. This is also the only emission of the fuel cell. The separation of the reaction by a membrane enables the generation of electrical energy with which a battery can be charged. This in turn can drive the vehicle via an electric motor.
What is the biggest advantage of hydrogen-based fuel cell technology?
Clearly the high energy density of hydrogen. This enables long ranges to be achieved locally in a CO₂-neutral way without having to accept massive restrictions in the vehicle concept. The prerequisite here is, of course, that the hydrogen is produced CO₂-neutral. Furthermore, the availability of the required raw material is also a major advantage. If hydrogen is produced from water by electrolysis, this raw material is also available in unlimited quantities throughout the world. The writer Jules Verne already said in 1874: "Water is the coal of the future".
It is said that the production of fuel cells is complex and sensitive. How can this be demonstrated?
That is correct. For example, tolerances in the micrometre range and the exact maintenance of temperatures and humidity are important. The manufacturing processes are still associated with a high level of manual effort at all manufacturers today. The challenge is to develop highly automated systems that meet the strict requirements and enable minimum cycle times. Because this naturally has an impact on costs. We are working hard on this topic and have already come a long way.
Many things still sound like dreams of the future. When can we go into series production?
It still requires some developments in product design and production technology to produce in large series for a commercial vehicle with the corresponding requirements for service life, efficiency and costs. But our roadmap to this goal is clearly defined. With our new generation of fuel cells, which will be used primarily in heavy trucks, we intend to go into mass production in the second half of the decade. Of course, we will already be delivering units for prototypes and small series before then and gradually ramping up production to ensure the quality we expect. In my opinion, this timeline fits in very well with the development of the infrastructure.
You still have a lot of work to do there. What do you see as the biggest challenges in the transformation?
I firmly believe that we can quickly bring the technology to the right level so that both our customers and we will benefit. I am also convinced that the infrastructure can develop and that further political impulses will drive the transformation forward. Only if we all face this transformation together we can achieve the real goal: to stop man-made climate change and end the exploitation of the planet.
About the Daimler Truck Fuel Cell GmbH & Co. KG
Daimler Truck Fuel Cell GmbH & Co KG bundles all group-wide fuel cell activities and will later be transferred to a planned joint venture with the Volvo Group. Dr. Andreas Gorbach (45) and Prof. Dr. Christian Mohrdieck (60) are the managing directors of the new company. Both have extensive experience with conventional and alternative drive systems, especially fuel cell systems. Gorbach has already held a management position with overall responsibility for all fuel cell topics at Daimler Truck AG since the beginning of May 2020. In his additional position as CEO of Daimler Truck Fuel Cell GmbH & Co KG, he will continue this task. Prof. Dr. Christian Mohrdieck has been head of fuel cell development in the Daimler Group since 2003 and was managing director of the fuel cell development unit Mercedes-Benz Fuel Cell GmbH, which was assigned to the newly founded subsidiary.