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The Future Of Electric Trucks Will Begin With Natural Gas, Hyliion Says

Nikola is working on hydrogen, and Tesla and Rivian on all-electric trucks, but Hyliion is making a strong case that a system it has under development will become the industry standard first: Hyliion’s Hypertruck ERX range extender swaps out a diesel engine for a bank of electric batteries which are charged via onboard generators that run on tanks of compressed natural gas.

The combination gives Class 8 commercial trucks a range of maybe 1,000 miles without having to compensate for massive battery weight and cuts carbon emissions by about 25% compared with diesel, while all-electric trucks so far can provide only 100 to 200 miles of range.

“The market will separate into BEV plug-ins for short-haul applications and another platform for long haul, 300 to 500 miles a day,” Thomas Healy, founder of Austin-based Hyliion, told me. “For that, you need an electric range extender that charges the batteries as you go, similar to a locomotive design. You can produce power on the truck that is cheaper and cleaner than grid electricity. What we’ve done is laid out a road map starting with natural gas that will evolve into hydrogen fuel cells when the time is right.”

The company’s first product to market is called Hybrid EX, a retrofit to an existing truck powered by diesel or CNG. “An e-axle basically serves as a power assist to the vehicle,” explained a Hyliion representative. “By doing that, you can add regenerative braking to the whole system, capturing that energy. And when you’re going back up a hill, that power assist is there to create better fuel economy.”

Hyliion kind of shot out of nowhere a few years ago, after Healy welcomed an investment from axle manufacturer Dana in 2019. Other investors include Howard Jenkins, of the billionaire Publix supermarket fortune; FJ Management, associated with the Haslam family in Tennessee and its Flying J chain of truck stops; and Japanese diversified giant Sumitomo.

Hyliion went public in 2020 via a SPAC, but its stock has tanked since shortly after the IPO in light of issues ranging from supply-chain bottlenecks to greater competition from the likes of Tesla as the latter invades the Class 8 space.

Still a billionaire from the sale, Healy is optimistic about market penetration in part because Hyliion’s approach is OEM-agnostic and can be harnessed by a wide variety of truck makers, though the company is going to market in Peterbilts.

“EVs cost more up front than diesel,” Healy said. “The big question is: what is the cost of electricity, or of the fuel to produce electricity? If that’s less than the cost of diesel, then you can make a positive ROI for a fleet. With natural gas, it’s about $1 per gallon-equivalent; with diesel it’s $3 to $4. So we have a strong ability to reduce fleet operating costs over the life of an asset, to be less expensive than what a diesel is today to operate.”

Healy grew up in Boston and competed nationally as a teenager racing cars and go-karts. When he went to college at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Healy not only made the football team as the punter but also tinkered with starting up companies. He launched Hyliion while in the CMU graduate mechanical-engineering program after he wondered, “Why do passenger cars have electric powertrains and trucks don’t?”

With a determination upon graduation to grow Hyliion, Healy moved the company out of Pittsburgh because he “couldn’t find enough people there who had strong startup experience,” he said. “We were looking for a team who’d been through startups, and I could only find the people I wanted in Silicon Valley or Austin. It came down to the basic economics of Austin because it’s a lot more financially beneficial from a cash-conservation standpoint.”