- The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) granted $2 million for a 3-year study of hydrogen gas fueling stations that can automatically connect to and refuel vehicles.
- The technology, developed in a partnership between Plug Power and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Automation Technologies & Systems, will first be tested with autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) in a warehouse setting. Later tests will focus on on-road vehicles, such as delivery trucks.
- "The AGVs currently require a person to perform the fueling connection," Dustan Skidmore, vice president of engineering for Plug Power, told Supply Chain Dive via e-mail. "The new dispenser will make them truly autonomous, able to operate and refuel themselves 24/7 without human intervention."
"As autonomous vehicles become more popular, businesses will want to utilize them as much as possible," Skidmore said. "An automated hydrogen dispenser fits well with this model because it removes any need for human interaction."
Battery life is currently a limiting factor for fully-autonomous operations. AGVs must either charge or be fueled by a human in order to continue working. The tests supported by the DOE seek to eliminate these barriers by taking away the need for a human to fill up vehicles' gas tanks, whether they are autonomous or not.
"In a typical large distribution center operating 300 trucks, as many as 600 fuelings may take place in a single day. Based on the operator labor required to perform these fueling, every 1-second reduction in fueling time saves more than $1000 annually in labor for fueling," Skidmore said.
The hydrogen fueling technology would be the first of its kind and has the potential to dramatically change autonomous operations in the long-term.
Imagine a future where a self-driving hydrogen-fueled delivery truck can operate all night long with drones dispatching parcels from the back of the truck. Or one where forklift injuries are reduced to zero, because facilities can pick-and-move product from racks to conveyor belts without a single human touch.
That future is not so far away. FedEx, Walmart and Amazon have all invested in Plug Power's hydrogen fuel cell technology. Toyota, meanwhile, is building its own fuel cell generator at the Port of Long Beach to help supply the energy its Class 8 trucks need to operate at the maritime gateway.
The list shows big players in logistics are ready to test hydrogen fueling technology, while many have already partnered with Plug Power. The company's website also lists BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Kroger and Procter & Gamble as customers with Plug Power Fuel Cells at multiple sites.
"Today, the technology can retrofit existing GenFuel sites supporting the more than 20,000 GenDrive fuel cells in the field," Skidmore said in a statement. "In the future, the technology can be used in on-road fleet vehicles, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), and self-driving passenger cars."