SALT LAKE CITY, UT — The much-touted Nikola One electric over-the-road truck has made its world debut, with Nikola founder and CEO Trevor Milton providing details of how the truck’s electric drive system would be powered by a combination of hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and regenerative braking. Milton said the truck will be in production by 2020, with an expected annual build rate of 50,000 units.
Speculation has been rampant for months on whether the truck and the project itself were the real thing — a truck that will soon be out on the highway hauling freight. While that remains to be seen, the very visible presence of industry giants such as Ryder System, Meritor and U.S. Express bring more than a little credibility to the Nikola One highway tractor project.
Milton, who made his entrance on an electric off-road vehicle called the Nikola Zero, opened the presentation with a quote from Oren Harari that he says captures everything he has been trying to explain to people since the beginning of the project. “The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.”
That says it all. The Nikola One is not an upfit or a refit or hybrid with a bit of this and a bit of that, but a fully electrically powered Class 8 highway sleeper truck that is said to be capable of running up to 1,900 kilometers on a single fill of the hydrogen fuel-cell system. It has no conventional drivetrain. Instead, each of the six wheel positions has its own independently controlled electric traction motor.
If the Nikola One lives up to the billing, it could totally transform all we think about heavy trucks. It could indeed be a game changer.
Milton said in many cases really big companies are not well positioned to undertake utterly ground-breaking, game-changing projects like this one because the risk involved.
“If there was a failure, it would affect a company of that size much more than a smaller company like ours,” he said. “One of the great advantages we have as entrepreneurs and one the tasks in life we have as entrepreneurs is to be able to take risks that no one else thought were possible.”
That risk became evident in the water cooler talk that has been going on for months, with many questioning whether the project was more than a story on a website. With both trade press and mainstream media from around the world gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah for the unveiling, Milton had an interested audience and he put his money where his mouth is.
Nikola One — the basics
The Nikola One utilizes a fully electric drivetrain powered by high-density lithium batteries. Energy for the batteries is supplied on-the-go by a proton exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cell giving the truck a range of 1,200 – 1,900 kilometers while delivering over 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 lb-ft of torque.
“Can you imagine pulling a 6% grade with 80,000 pounds at 65 mph?” Milton asked. “You can do that with a Nikola One.”
Milton says the truck will weigh about 2,000 pounds less than a similar diesel sleeper truck because the traditional powertrain and fuel tanks have been eliminated. The truck displayed at the unveiling weighs about 19,000 pounds.
Nikola also has plans for a daycab version as well, dubbed Nikola Two. It will have the same performance attributes and fuel utilization rates as the Nikola One sleeper model, but is smaller, lighter and less expensive. As a teaser, Milton offered that the daycab will also be much more manoeuvrable thanks to a unique steerable rear axle.
Because the powertrain is electric, it will produce a lot of its own energy through regenerative braking through the electric motors. It also has disc brakes at all wheel positions. Milton says 85% of the braking energy goes into energy regeneration rather than being wasted as heat. The disc brakes will reportedly have double or triple the life we see today.
“Conventional braking is energy lost to heat,” he notes. “Regenerative braking is energy recovered.”
As well, the stopping ability of the truck is increased exponentially because a brake application is near instantaneous (30 milliseconds) compared to the nearly half second it takes for an air disc brake to react. That means much shorter stopping distances and more precise control of the vehicle.
Milton said the truck will be more stable than a typical tractor thanks to a center of gravity lowered by 2 to 3 feet. “All the batteries are located in between the frame rails,” he said. “That keeps that great bulk of weight very close to the ground.
Other safety features of the Nikola One include “Surround Vision” provided by 12 cameras that, through a single screen, provide a 360-degree view of what’s going on around the truck. And entry and egress falls will be minimized by a mid-cab access door that opens into the cab behind the driver’s seat.
H2: Power, Production and Distribution
The math on the energy yield of hydrogen compared to diesel is pretty straightforward. A kilogram of H2 has 33.3 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of energy, which when converted to stored electrical energy by the 70%-efficient PEM fuel cell produces 23.3 usable kwh per kilo. With 100 kilos of H2 on board (storage tanks vary in size depending on the application) at a usage rate of 0.58 miles per kwh, the truck will go a calculated 1,351 miles (about 2,000 kilometers) assuming there are no other inordinate energy demands.
Milton said it works out to 15.4 miles (24.8 kilometers) per Diesel Gallon Equivalent of H2. “That’s more than double the fuel efficiency of today’s diesel powertrains,” Milton explained, noting, “As this truck goes down the road the only thing that will be coming out of it are drips of water.”
The Nikola One business model is almost entirely vertically integrated, right down to the production and distribution of the fuel. Nikola customers will get their hydrogen fuel at no additional cost; it’s built into the lease program, so there are no carrying charges or interest to be paid on fuel bills and no more need for customers to hedge their bets — and their rates — on fuel prices.
There are several ways to produce H2. Initial plans call for creating a 100-megawatt solar farm producing electricity for the on-site conversion of water to H2 through electrolysis. Other possible methods include steam reform or gas separation into compressed gas or cryogenic liquid. The fuel in Nikola’s case will be liquefied and transported in cryogenic tankers to fueling stations.
Initial plans call for 364 stations in the U.S. with concentrations that will allow trucks to pass at least seven and up to as many as 25 stations anywhere in the country without having to refill with hydrogen. Construction of the filling stations is set to being in 2019, and will be concentrated in areas where fleets are operating Nikola trucks.
There is currently a per-gallon federal credit to the station owner (Nikola), so Nikola is able to build that into the price of the truck when purchased and can then realize those savings and give customers the pre-purchased fuel for the first million miles.
“That’s the beauty of being vertically integrated,” Milton said. “We own our own hydrogen production facility, our own distribution and we also own the manufacturing of the truck.”
The initial truck production will be done by Fitzgerald, a company currently known for building glider kits in the U.S. The company is currently building between 6,000 to 9,000 glider kit trucks per year.
“Fitzgerald will build the first 5,000 trucks, and will continue to build trucks for us into the future,” said Milton. “This will allow us to avoid a lot of the initial capital expenditure. It’s not as advanced as a massive manufacturing facility, but once again, we’re doing things a different way.”
Milton says Nikola will eventually invest up to $1 billion in a manufacturing facility with capacity for up to 50,000 trucks per year. Those plans will proceed once more research and development and testing has been completed. The location of the proposed manufacturing plant will be announced in mid-2017.
Milton also talked about a new proprietary “load matching” service that is still in development, called Shipments.
“Every freight broker in the country will be able to upload their freight to our system and have our drivers pick those loads up,” he said. “[Shipments] will take a few years to roll out. It’s not an overnight thing. It will take work and testing and great partners but soon we’ll be passing billions of dollars of freight through our system. And it will be a tremendous boon to owner-operators.”
Milton named three major partners in the Nikola project: Ryder System, Meritor, and automotive and defense engineering company, Pratt and Miller.
“Meritor helped design our fully independent front and rear suspension,” said Milton. “It’s the first ever on a heavy truck. Drivers will be absolutely amazed at how well it rides, and it also allowed us to get rid of the differentials.”
Ryder will be servicing, selling, warrantying and fueling the vehicle at its 800 service centers located throughout the continental United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico.
While Milton did not single out Pratt and Miller for their contribution to the project, the company’s website lists specialties such as suspension, chassishybrid/electric propulsion systems, powertrain integration and more.
Nikola claims to have over $4 billion in pre-orders for the truck, with as many as 7,000 units currently at least partially spoken for. This evening’s presentation certainly piqued curiosity. If the truck lives up to the advanced billing, it may in fact be first word in the rest of the story of trucking.
Milton, not known for a pint-sized ego, is clearly and deservedly proud of what he and the team have accomplished thus far, and is closing remark really underscored the point.
“Imagine going up against the biggest companies in the world, people with $40-50 billion market caps. This is what we’ve been able to show the world we can do.”