Based near Lake Constance, Gebrüder Weiss’s 19t gvw box-bodied rigid transports assorted packages to locations in Basel, Berne and a variety of other destinations. Grossing at 19 tonnes, it offers a payload capacity of just 6.5 tonnes when running solo.
“The truck has a 400km range so it has to be refuelled, but that only takes 15 minutes,” says Peter Waldenberger, head of corporate administrative support at operator Gebrüder Weiss; he is responsible for the vehicle.
It is one among a fleet of similar Hyundais currently in service in Switzerland in a trial backed by the South Korean manufacturer involving 20 operators, many of whom are running the trucks with trailers at 36 tonnes. Leading the programme is Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility (HHM), a joint venture between Hyundai Motor Company and Swiss company H2 Energy.
By the end of last year, the 47 vehicles involved had covered over five million km between them, and the initiative is still going strong.
The trial is supported by the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association, green hydrogen supplier Hydrospider, and by the Swiss parliament’s Hydrogen Parliamentary Group.
Returning to the road, the Gebrüder Weiss truck can easily cope with Switzerland’s at-times-challenging topography, says Waldenberger, and has proved to be reliable, despite widespread suggestions that fuel cells are too fragile to withstand the rough and tumble of road transport. “We’ve been running it for two and a half years and it’s only been off the road for a couple of days,” he comments.
To test its ability to tackle longer runs Gebrüder Weiss dispatched the Hyundai to Prague (650km) and Budapest (800km), having located refuelling stops along the way. It handled both trips without any incidents.
The vehicle is being operated under a pence-per-kilometre agreement with Hyundai that covers everything, including the fuel.
“It costs 30% to 35% more than running a diesel would,” Waldenberger says. “Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it only cost 10% to 15% more.” The price hike was the result of a massive 350% spike in the cost of energy in Switzerland triggered by the war, he says.
Over 70% of the energy the country uses is imported, according to statistics compiled by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, and it was heavily dependent on cheap Russian gas, he points out.
A lot of electricity is needed to produce hydrogen. Switzerland has its own environmentally friendly power sources, is making greater use of solar, and boasts over 680 hydroelectric power stations.
However, as the war in Ukraine took hold, the price of energy from all the sources it could call on – domestic or foreign – skyrocketed.
The increase in the cost of running the truck is partly offset by a Swiss government concession which means that, unlike diesels, the Hyundai is not subject to a per-km highway tax; this is Switzerland’s performance-related heavy vehicle charge. Drive a diesel 18-tonner 100km and you will face a levy of CHF41.05; the equivalent of £36.
The concession applies to electric as well as hydrogen fuel cell trucks. The Swiss authorities are not giving HHM’s programme any direct financial support.
The energy price hike may have been responsible for last year’s rumour that the programme was about to be scrapped, suggests Waldenberger; a rumour strongly refuted by HHM, which has called it “totally groundless.”
In a prepared statement, it said: “As incorrectly stated in some media, neither Hyundai nor any partner involved in the hydrogen ecosystem in Switzerland intend to stop the existing initiative.
“The unpredictable disruption in the energy market affects the availability and costs of electricity from sustainable energy sources,” it continued. “This includes the production costs of green hydrogen in the short and medium term. Nevertheless, all the players in the Swiss hydrogen ecosystem are fully committed to their goals.”
The country now has two green hydrogen production sites, and its 14th hydrogen filling station opened in May.
Why is Gebrüder Weiss involved in the scheme? “Because sustainability is one of our four core values, and we need to reduce our CO2 emissions,” Waldenberger replies. “Eighty percent of our emissions come from diesel trucks.” The Hyundais save 80 tonnes of CO2 a year apiece compared with equivalent diesel models, says HHM.
Gebrüder Weiss also takes the view that while battery-electric trucks may be suitable for delivery routes of up to 250km, a different solution is needed for longer runs, given range limitations and long recharge times. It decided to participate when it heard about the Swiss trial in mid-2019. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted its plans, so it was January 2021 before it put its truck on the road. “We’ve decided to run it for seven years,” says Waldenberger.
Switzerland is in many respects the ideal platform for this type of trial. With a population of less than nine million, covering just under 16,000 square miles, prosperous, in the centre of Europe and with good transport links, it is a market that a manufacturer the size of Hyundai should find easy to manage. “And the 14 filling stations where you can get green hydrogen in effect mean that the whole country is covered,” says Waldenberger.
Purchasing the Hyundai outright would be painfully expensive: five to six times the cost of a comparable diesel vehicle, he says. “In Austria and Germany, however, the government will pay us 80% of the additional cost,” he reports. Gebrüder Weiss aims to deploy Hyundais in both countries. “We’ve got government funding in place in Germany for five and we should be able to get funding in Austria for two, although that hasn’t been confirmed yet,” he says.
Last year Hyundai announced that 27 of its XCIENT trucks would be going into service with seven operators in Germany, with financial support from the country’s Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport. The vehicles come with a 180kW fuel cell system split into two 90kW fuel cell stacks. They power a 350kW electric motor delivering up to 2,237Nm of torque. The seven hydrogen tanks hold approximately 31kg of the fuel between them while a 72kWh set of three batteries provide an additional source of power.
It is also worth noting that Hyundai and IVECO jointly unveiled a prototype IVECO Daily fitted with the former’s fuel cell system at last year’s IAA Transportation show in Germany.
Ken Ramirez, head of global commercial vehicle and hydrogen fuel cell business at Hyundai Motor, is in no doubt that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. “We’ve pioneered hydrogen fuel cell technology and can show a proven track record of its efficiency and durability,” he states. “We’re now leveraging its merits to further transform transport with hydrogen energy for a broad range of mobility applications.”
They include shipping and aircraft, he says, as well as commercial vehicles.
“We’re looking beyond mobility towards an integrated hydrogen ecosystem, from its production to its storage, transport and delivery,” he states. “Hyundai is uniquely positioned to cover all these aspects.”