Daimler disagrees with Tesla and VW’s batteries-or-bust view
Daimler AG’s truck chief expects hydrogen-powered big rigs to play an important role in slashing emissions from the transportation sector despite the technological hurdles and skepticism raised by two prominent rivals.
Focusing solely on battery-electric vehicles would be risky because of the scarcity of certain raw materials and challenges grids will have supporting wide-ranging charging networks for trucks and buses, Martin Daum, Daimler Truck’s chief executive officer, said in a phone interview.
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“We cannot afford to bank on just one technology to reach the climate goals," Daum said. “The focus until 2025 will be 100% on battery-electric vehicles. Between 2025 and 2035, we’re going to need both battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles because the massively growing infrastructure requirements require a two-legged approach."
Fuel cells, which generate electricity from hydrogen and therefore eliminate the need to recharge batteries, have been touted for years as a potential alternative to combustion engines. But high costs and sparse fueling infrastructure have stood in the way of broader adoption and left the technology far behind battery-electric powertrains in the passenger-car market.
Electrifying commercial vehicles is more complex -- they’re larger, heavier and used for everything from deliveries to supermarkets in urban areas to long-haul transport in remote areas. Daimler recently formed a joint venture with rival Volvo AB to jointly develop fuel cell stacks.
While prominent industry leaders including Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk and Volkswagen AG’s Herbert Diess have repeatedly criticized fuel cells and argued battery power is the only way forward, Daimler and Volvo aren’t alone in seeing long-term potential.
“Decarbonization of the energy mix represents the most profound shift in energy since the start of the industrial revolution," Sanford Bernstein analysts led by Neil Beveridge said in a note to clients. “It is simply impossible to reach net zero by 2050 without hydrogen playing a major role."
Daimler’s truck division is the world’s largest maker of commercial vehicles and on track to be spun off from the Mercedes-Benz luxury-car operations this year. The split reflects the diverging technology trends between passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Both will need enormous investment in new technology to comply with stricter emissions standards.
Daum, 61, mapped out more aggressive profitability targets on Thursday and objectives to generate the funds needed to navigate the industry’s transformation.
“We want to be a resilient company that can avoid losses even in difficult years," he said. The unit plans to list at the Frankfurt stock exchange later this year and could enter the country’s blue-chip DAX Index.
Daimler boasts a truly global footprint that’s unique among commercial-vehicle manufacturers. While Volvo just trimmed its presence in Asia by selling its UD Trucks business in Japan, VW’s Traton SE unit is finishing its takeover of U.S. truckmaker Navistar International Corp. next quarter.
Apart from Mercedes trucks, Daimler’s trucks and buses division comprises Fuso in Japan, BharatBenz in India, Setra in Germany; and Freightliner, Thomas Built and Western Star in North America.
The company has relied heavily on profits from Freightliner in recent years, as North America tends to generate much of the industry’s earnings. Executives said Thursday that boosting profitability at European operations will be a top priority and pledged to reduce personnel and material costs to become more competitive in the region.
Asked whether Daimler may consider an acquisition of CNH Industrial NV’s Italian business Iveco, Daum said his focus is on the company’s own operations. “I don’t see the need for us to add an asset to our European business," he said. “There are no plans for any structural changes."