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Is hydrogen fuel cell technology development turning away from passenger vehicles towards commercial vehicles?

Commercial Vehicles

May 2024

Shirly Zhu

Shirly Zhu

Principal Analyst

Shirly has worked across multiple industry sectors in her 10+ year career, conducting projects requiring primary and secondary research, as well as quantitative and qualitative analysis. She’s primarily focused on Industrial Automation topics including motion and industrial controls.

Passenger vehicle has been the main vehicle type adopting hydrogen fuel cell technologies in major countries, such as South Korea, Japan, the USA (mainly California), and Germany, while China has been the only exception, as it has focused on promoting hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicles (FCCV).

In 2023, China overtook South Korea as the world’s largest market for fuel cell vehicle sales, and FCCV accounted for an impressive 92% of total global registrations of fuel cell vehicles. In contrast, major fuel cell passenger vehicle markets like Japan and South Korea experienced substantial sales declines due to factors including a reduction in subsidies, insufficient infrastructure, and soaring hydrogen prices. Is the global hydrogen market turning its back on passenger vehicles for commercial vehicles?

South Korea

South Korea remained the world’s top market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicle registrations (predominantly passenger cars) until it was overtaken by China in 2023. According to KAMA data, following record sales of 10,525 units in 2022, the country experienced a sharp decline in fuel cell passenger vehicle sales to 4,554 units in 2023. However, registrations of fuel cell commercial vehicles surged by nearly 1.5 times year-on-year to 381 units in 2023.

The share of fuel cell commercial vehicle sales in South Korea saw a significant increase in 2023

From a hydrogen infrastructure perspective, operation of hydrogen refueling stations (HRS) for passenger cars faced challenges, with many stations shutting down for a time in 2023 due to a sharp increase in hydrogen prices. HYNET, the largest HRS owner and operator, which currently manages 45 stations nationwide, has consistently operated at a deficit since its establishment in 2019 and was reported to be facing financial challenges earlier this year due to funding issues. The reduction in government subsidies for hydrogen vehicles has further complicated the development of passenger-car hydrogen refueling stations.

In contrast, construction of hydrogen refueling stations for commercial vehicles is progressing. KOHYGEN, a company consortium (similar to HYNET) and founded in 2021, focuses on constructing hydrogen refueling stations for commercial vehicles. The organization has set ambitious targets to construct 35 commercial vehicle HRS nationwide by 2025, with further increases to 160 stations by 2035 and 300 stations by 2040. KOHYGEN had 4 HRS in operation and 19 under construction as of the end of 2023.

Hyundai Motor is one of the world leaders for hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles. Its NEXO – which debuted in 2018 – is well known to the public as a hydrogen fuel cell passenger car brand. However, the company made its first foray into the hydrogen vehicle field as early as 2005 by launching a fuel cell bus (deployed for 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany). The company remains committed to exploring diverse applications of hydrogen transportation. Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility was founded in partnership with H2 Energy in 2020, to specialize in H2 Xcient heavy-duty truck R&D and production. In December 2023, Hyundai delivered 500 fuel cell commercial vehicles in China using its HTWO Guangzhou fuel cell system.

Japan

Japan, the home market for Toyota – a world leader for fuel cell passenger vehicles – is a leading country market for fuel cell passenger vehicles. However, challenges such as the rise of the electric vehicle, inadequate hydrogen infrastructure, and high upfront and operation costs, have resulted in a sales decline of fuel cell passenger vehicles in Japan. Data from the Japan Automobile Dealers Association (JADA) shows fuel cell vehicle sales in Japan dropped by 83% over the past two years, falling from 2,464 units in 2021 to 422 units in 2023.

Major automakers started to turn their attention to commercial vehicles to diversify application scenarios, with hydrogen trucks appearing to offer the potential for breakthroughs. In May 2023, Toyota and Hino jointly launched Japan’s first fuel cell heavy-duty truck for pilot operations. In October, Isuzu announced the plan to mass-produce fuel cell light-duty trucks with Toyota by the end of the 2020s, targeting cost parity with electric equivalents. In December, Isuzu and Honda initiated demonstrations of fuel cell heavy-duty trucks (GIGA FUEL CELL truck) on public roads, with plans for mass production by 2027.

Japan has ambitious plans for the hydrogen industry and the country announced in 2019 (in ‘The Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells’) a target of 800,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the roads by 2030. Although the country did not specify targets for hydrogen vehicle deployments in its “Green Growth Strategies”, released in 2021, it emphasized the need to increase hydrogen supply, reduce hydrogen prices, and advance commercialization of fuel cell trucks through demonstration projects. As of 2023, Japan had only around 8,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Currently, challenges, including lack of hydrogen infrastructure, and high upfront and operation costs, severely hamper the ability of fuel cell passenger vehicles to compete with battery electric vehicles. Whether automakers are aiming to compete with electric vehicles, or the government adheres to its goal for hydrogen vehicles, it becomes more and more pressing to expand application scenarios for hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Europe

Facing stagnant demand for fuel cell passenger vehicles, hydrogen refueling stations for light-duty cars in European countries have been shut down due to insufficient demand, operational losses, and technical challenges. After Shell closed three hydrogen stations in the UK in October 2022, Motive Fuels, one of the major operators in the UK, closed two stations in London in 2023, leaving just one in operation. Additionally, Everfuel closed its five HRSs in Denmark.

On the other hand, policy regulators and industry players seem to demonstrate a preference for hydrogen heavy-duty vehicles. In July 2023, the European Union approved the new AFIR (Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation), which mandates the deployment of hydrogen refueling stations serving both cars and trucks starting from 2030 onwards. These stations are to be placed in all urban nodes and every 200 km along the TEN-T core network. In response, many countries and hydrogen companies announced HRS plans. Everfuel, for example, announced plans to continue building hydrogen stations for heavy-duty trucks and large vehicle fleets, having closed all its light-duty vehicle hydrogen stations in Denmark.

HRS is an important part of hydrogen strategies at petrochemical giants which claim to be “going green”. Earlier this year, Air Liquide and TotalEnergies jointly established TEAL Mobility, aiming to build over 100 hydrogen stations serving heavy-duty vehicles across Europe over the next decade. Shell, amid the closure of light-duty vehicle hydrogen stations, also announced plans to identify larger sites for constructing hydrogen stations tailored to large commercial vehicles.

United States

California is leading adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – predominantly passenger cars – in the US. Despite 10% sales growth in 2023, total fuel cell vehicle sales in California were still lower than in 2021. While the closure of hydrogen stations for passenger cars continues, hydrogen fuel cell trucks have started to hit the road commercially. In early 2024, Shell shut down all light-duty vehicle hydrogen stations in California. At the same time, Nikola launched the first mobile hydrogen station for heavy-duty trucks under the HYLA brand and aims to deploy 9 more stations by the end of 2024.

California’s efforts to accelerate “zero emissions” is expected to provide opportunities for fuel cell trucks. According to regulations from CARB (California Air Resource Board), all truck companies operating at California ports should purchase only zero-emission trucks starting from 2024. The goal is to achieve 100% zero emissions for entire fleets by 2035. With advantages like shorter refueling times and long-range mileage, coupled with high standards for load capacity and operational efficiency at ports, this move is anticipated to drive up adoption of fuel cell trucks in the state.

China

In 2023, China became the world’s largest market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicle registrations, with commercial models accounting for over 90%. Fuel cell passenger vehicles also saw robust sales growth but had a limited share of total registrations. Unlike other major markets, China has been focusing on hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicles.

After years of development, hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicles in China have become more diversified in application scenarios, resulting into sales of diversified vehicle types. According to Interact Analysis’ monthly tracker for China’s new energy bus and truck market, in 2023 fuel cell light-duty trucks (mainly used for cold-chain logistics) accounted for 27% of total fuel cell commercial vehicle sales, second only to heavy-duty trucks. This was a significant jump in sales compared with 2021, when only 3 fuel cell light-duty trucks were sold.

Sales of light-duty and heavy-duty trucks rose sharply in China last year

Heavy-duty trucks are the mainstream for fuel cell commercial vehicles, such as towing trailers, dump trucks, and specialized vehicles, which mainly operate on non-public roads with short-range (typically not exceeding 500 kilometers) and fixed routes. But fuel cell heavy-duty trucks are also starting to move towards medium- and long-distance cross-regional transport. Government policies – such as subsidies for HRS construction on highways, exemptions from highway tolls – support the use of fuel cell trucks in long-haul distribution. End-users like JD Logistics have already deployed fuel cell heavy-duty trucks for transport in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. According to Chinese industry news, in April two fuel cell heavy-duty trucks completed the long-distance transportation test by traveling 1,500 kilometers from Beijing to Shanghai in two days.

Final thoughts

Despite the recent developments in the commercial fuel cell vehicles market covered here, we do not view it as passenger vehicles losing out to commercial vehicles in the hydrogen sector, but rather as hydrogen technology exploring the most suitable applications. In fact, in addition to on-road vehicles, hydrogen power technology is making progress in a wide range of applications, including railway, marine, and stationary power generation.

Technologies always undergo various trials to identify optimal scenarios and business models, engaging in continuous experimentation, improvement, and innovation, before they truly mature and flourish.

For more information about our Hydrogen Refueling Stations – 2024 report, please get in touch with Shirly Zhu.

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