Hexagon Purus Places Multiple Bets on Electrified Trucking

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

inside of a red truck
Photo by David Shultz

When experts talk about the future of the energy economy, technologies are often described as winners or losers.

“Solar will beat nuclear.”

“Lithium iron phosphate will dominate lithium nickel manganese cobalt.”

“Geothermal is a better bet than tidal.”

Nowhere is this contest more pronounced than in the long-range trucking industry where hydrogen is battling for supremacy against battery electric.

But according to Hexagon Purus there’s room for everyone at the party, at least for now.

The Californian branch of Norwegian parent company Hexagon Composites has recently set up an American branch in Ontario, California, which is independently listed and focusing on zero emission solutions to trucking. It’s early days still, but on a tour of the facility last week I was able to chat with executives about how the future might unfold and how the company’s strategy illuminates both the opportunity and uncertainty surrounding the transition.

The debate around the best way to decarbonize long range trucking has been ongoing for several years now, and two technologies have emerged as the front runners. Earlier this year, I outlined this technological arms race in our newsletter, but a quick recap never hurts.

In one corner there’s the electric truck, which stores energy in a battery and uses that to drive an electric motor.

In the other corner there’s the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), which carries hydrogen onboard and uses a fuel cell to turn the gas into electricity that drives an electric motor.

Fuel cell electric vehicles offer more energy per volume and per weight than today’s best batteries. And because of that, they offer longer ranges, which is a huge deal for long range trucking. Hydrogen tanks can also be quickly refilled or swapped, meaning drivers don’t have to wait for batteries to recharge.

But hydrogen also faces major headwinds. There are currently only 54 hydrogen refueling stations in the United States, and every single one is in California. By contrast, electricity is ubiquitous. The grid–while far from perfect and definitely not ready to support a nation of predominantly EVs–is already installed, and there are nearly 50,000 EV chargers spread across the country. There’s also nowhere near enough green hydrogen to power the nation’s fleet of trucks. But where some might see an obstacle, Hexagon sees opportunity.


Engineers check rev an engine at Hexagon Purus' location in Ontario, California.

Photo by David Shultz

Hexagon Composites, the parent company, got its start making hydrogen storage tanks.

These tanks are similar to the propane tank you use to power a grill or a heater. But hydrogen is a much trickier molecule to store than natural gas or propane: It’s lighter and escapes through smaller holes, meaning the tanks need to be made to a higher standard. It’s also corrosive to metal, meaning Hexagon’s tanks are lined with an inert plastic. FCEVs, if they catch on, represent an enormous opportunity to expand that business.

In addition to the tanks themselves, the company makes racks to transport tanks, and instruments to inspect and certify said tanks. If hydrogen is going to catch on, the United States will need a way to ship the gas all over the country. Hexagon believes their cylinders, transport and storage technologies are perfectly positioned to take on that challenge.

That’s where Purus comes in. Major truck makers like Volvo, Daimler and Freightliner have at least some of their chips invested in fuel cell technologies. Hexagon Purus is working with these industry giants to integrate their hydrogen tanks into the fuel cells on these trucks. If the tech catches on, the trucking giants will probably take over the integration themselves, but Hexagon Purus CEO Morten Holum says that smaller fleets–street sweepers, boom trucks, construction, drayage, etc–will still need the service…and the tanks. Right now, the technology is firmly in the prototyping stage, and Holum estimates that a shift is probably still three to five years out. Hexagon has just 20 FCEV trucks on the road. But each truck boasts up to 800 miles of range—certainly long enough to completely disrupt the diesel truck industry.

Initially, when I toured the Hexagon Purus facility, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the hydrogen technology in development was on track to become obsolete the moment somebody develops a battery that can carry a fully loaded tractor trailer 600 miles. Truckers are only allowed to drive for 8 hours per shift, so even if they averaged a whopping 70 miles per hour, that means a driver can only cover 560 miles in a shift. Tesla’s range figures should always be taken with a grain of salt, but their upcoming Semi platform will reportedly come with either 300 or 500 miles of range (on level ground). The Semi platform is currently in the process of receiving EPA certification, suggesting that deliveries might begin soon. While 500 miles might not translate to quite enough real-world range to entice the longest of long haul truckers, signs seems to suggest the day is coming.

The Californian branch of Norwegian parent company Hexagon Composites has recently set up an American branch in Ontario, CA, which is independently listed and focusing on zero emission solutions to trucking. The Californian branch of Norwegian parent company Hexagon Composites has recently set up an American branch in Ontario, CA, which is independently listed and focusing on zero-emission solutions to trucking. Photo by David Shultz

But in the back corner of Hexagon’s garage, I found the answer. They’re also working on a battery platform. The company is building 220 kWh battery packs with cells sourced from “household name” brands and integrating them into the trucks–up to three at a time. For an operation that, at present, makes its money selling hydrogen cylinders and accessories, it’s quite a hedge. But Holum says the company–at least the Purus arm–is actually quite “tech agnostic.”

“Of course, if you had a battery that was 20% of the weight of today's batteries that you could charge in 15 minutes, then hydrogen would not be a long term truck fuel,” Holum says. But that technology isn’t here yet, and decarbonizing trucking is a task that has to start today. “The problem that we have now is not one solution out-competing the other solution,” he says. “It’s that both solutions are really needed, and there isn’t enough [supply].”

Holum thinks that over the next 10 years there will be room and demand for both technologies in the trucking sector, with battery electric vehicles taking up jobs with shorter duty cycles–things like drayage and last mile delivery–while FCEVs handle the long range jobs with the heaviest loads.

Beyond that, batteries may improve to the point where they win the market, but Holum also points out that FCEVs still use batteries and so they also benefit from improvements in the tech. Hydrogen itself can also get better. Hexagon is experimenting with storing the molecule as a liquid instead of a gas. While this requires even higher pressures, it would allow dramatically more energy to be packed into the same volume.

After ten years, it’s anyone’s guess how the technologies will evolve, says Holum, but with irons in so many different fires, Hexagon is trying to position itself for whatever the future may hold.

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

'Open Letter' Proposing 6-Month AI Moratorium Continues to Muddy the Waters Around the Technology

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
'Open Letter' Proposing 6-Month AI Moratorium Continues to Muddy the Waters Around the Technology
Evan Xie

AI continues to dominate the news – not just within the world of technology, but mainstream news sources at this point – and the stories have entered a by-now familiar cycle. A wave of exciting new developments, releases and viral apps is followed by a flood of alarm bells and concerned op-eds, wondering out loud whether or not things are moving too fast for humanity’s own good.

With OpenAI and Microsoft’s GPT-4 arriving a few weeks ago to massive enthusiasm, we were overdue for our next hit of jaded cynicism, warning about the potentially dire impact of intuitive chatbots and text-to-image generators.

Sure enough, this week, more than 1,000 signatories released an open letter calling for all AI labs to pause training any new systems more powerful than GPT-4 for six months.

What does the letter say?

The letter calls out a number of familiar concerns for anyone who has been reading up on AI development this past year. On the most immediate and practical level, it cautions that chatbots and automated text generators could potentially eliminate vast swathes of jobs previously filled by humans, while “flood[ing] our information channels with propaganda and untruth.” The letter then continues into full apocalypse mode, warning that “nonhuman minds” could eventually render us obsolete and dominate us, risking “loss of control of our civilization.”

The six-month break, the signatories argue, could be used to jointly develop shared safety protocols around AI design to ensure that they remain “safe beyond a reasonable doubt.” They also suggest that AI developers work in collaboration with policymakers and politicians to develop new laws and regulations around AI and AI research.

The letter was signed by several AI developers and experts, along with tech industry royalty like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak. TechCrunch does point out that no one from inside OpenAI seems to have signed it, nor Anthropic, a group of former OpenAI developers who left to design their own “safer” chatbots. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman did speak to the Wall Street Journal this week in reference to the letter, noting that the company has not yet started work on GPT-5 and that time for safety tests has always been built into their development process. He referred to the letter’s overall message as “preaching to the choir.”

Critics of the letter

The call for an AI ban was not without critics, though. Journalist and investor Ben Parr noted that the vague language makes it functionally meaningless, without any kind of metrics to gauge how “powerful” an AI system has become or suggestions for how to enforce a global AI ban. He also notes that some signatories, including Musk, are OpenAI and ChatGPT competitors, potentially giving them a personal stake in this fight beyond just concern for the future of civilization. Others, like NBC News reporter Ben Collins, suggested that the dire AI warnings could be a form of dystopian marketing.

On Twitter, entrepreneur Chris Pirillo noted that “the genie is already out of the bottle” in terms of AI development, while physicist and author David Deutsch called out the letter for confusing today’s AI apps with the Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) systems still only seen in sci-fi films and TV shows.

Legitimate red flags

Obviously, the letter speaks to relatively universal concerns. It’s easy to imagine why writers would be concerned by, say, BuzzFeed now using AI to write entire articles and not just quizzes. (The website isn’t even using professional writers to collaborate with and copy-edit the software anymore. The new humans helping out “Buzzy the Robot” to compose its articles are non-editorial employees from the client partnership, account management, and product management teams. Hey, it’s just an “experiment,” freelancers!)

But it does once more raise some red flags about the potentially misleading ways that some in the industry and the media are discussing AI, which continues to make these kinds of high-level discussions around the technology more cumbersome and challenging.

A recent viral Twitter thread credited ChatGPT-4 with saving a dog’s life, leading to a lot of breathlessly excited coverage about how computers were already smarter than your neighborhood veterinarian. The owner entered the dog’s symptoms into the chatbot, along with copies of its blood work, and ChatGPT responded with the most common potential ailments. As it turns out, a live human doctor tested the animal for one of the bot’s suggested illnesses and accurately guessed the diagnosis. So the computer is, in a very real sense, a hero.

Still, considering what might be wrong with dogs based on their symptoms isn’t what ChatGPT does best. It’s not a medical or veterinary diagnostic tool, and it doesn’t have a database of dog ailments and treatments at the ready. It’s designed for conversations, and it’s just guessing as to what might be wrong with the animal based on the texts on which it was trained, sentences and phrases that it has seen connected in human writing in the past. In this case, the app guessed correctly, and that’s certainly good news for one special pupper. But there’s no guarantee it would get the right answer every time, or even most of the time. We’ve seen a lot of evidence that ChatGPT is perfectly willing to lie, and can’t actually tell the difference between truth and a lie.

There’s also already a perfectly solid technology that this person could have used to enter a dog’s symptoms and research potential diagnoses and treatments: Google search. A search results page also isn’t guaranteed to come up with the correct answer, but it’s as if not more reliable in this particular use case than ChatGPT-4, at least for now. A quality post on a reliable veterinary website would hopefully contain similar information to the version ChatGPT pulled together, except it would have been vetted and verified by an actual human expert.

Have we seen too many sci-fi movies?

A response published in Time by computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky – long considered a thought leader in the development of artificial general intelligence – argues that the open letter doesn’t go far enough. Yudkowsky suggests that we’re currently on a path toward “building a superhumanly smart AI,” which will very likely result in the death of every human being on the planet.

No, really, that’s what he says! The editorial takes some very dramatic turns that feel pulled directly from the realms of science-fiction and fantasy. At one point, he warns: “A sufficiently intelligent AI won’t stay confined to computers for long. In today’s world you can email DNA strings to laboratories that will produce proteins on demand, allowing an AI initially confined to the internet to build artificial life forms or bootstrap straight to postbiological molecular manufacturing.” This is the actual plot of the 1995 B-movie “Virtuosity,” in which an AI serial killer app (played by Russell Crowe!) designed to help train police officers grows his own biomechanical body and wreaks havoc on the physical world. Thank goodness Denzel Washington is around to stop him.

And, hey, just because AI-fueled nightmares have made their way into classic films, that doesn’t mean they can’t also happen in the real world. But it nonetheless feels like a bit of a leap to go from text-to-image generators and chatbots – no matter how impressive – to computer programs that can grow their own bodies in a lab, then use those bodies to take control of our military and government apparatus. Perhaps there’s a direct line between the experiments being done today and truly conscious, self-aware, thinking machines down the road. But, as Deutsch cautioned in his tweet, it’s important to remember that AI and AGI are not necessarily the exact same thing.

EVGo’s Stock Surges on Better-Than-Expected Q4 Earnings

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

EVGo’s Stock Surges on Better-Than-Expected Q4 Earnings
Image from EVGo

Shares of EVgo are up over 20% today after the company released Q4 earnings that outpaced predictions from Wall Street. Analysts had predicted the company would announce a loss per share in the neighborhood of $0.16-$0.18, but the Los Angeles-based electric vehicle charging company reported a much more meager loss, to the tune of just $0.06 per share.

Read moreShow less

How AgTech Startup Leaf Wants To Modernize the Farming Industry

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

green leaf drawing and rolling farm lands
Evan Xie

At least 50,000 acres in the state of California are estimated to be underwater after a record-breaking year of rainfall. So far this year, California has received nearly 29 inches of rain, with the bulk being dumped on its central and southern coasts. Farmers are already warning that the price of dairy, tomatoes and other vegetables will rise as the weather prevents them from re-seeding their fields.

While no current technology can prevent weather disasters, Leaf Agriculture, a Los Angeles-based startup that launched in 2018, wants to help farmers better manage their properties by leveraging data.

Read moreShow less