Nikola Motor Company blew up the world of zero-emission vehicles last week with the announcement of five new vehicles, ranging from its battery and hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks to a new electric personal watercraft. The announcements were made at Nikola World on April 16th and CleanTechnica was there to capture all of the news firsthand.
The event itself was en enormous party at Westworld in Scottsdale, Arizona, put together for 2,200 of Nikola Motor Company’s partners, die-hard fans, the media, and employees. It was a celebration of the work achieved by the company so far, while projecting a much larger vision for the future of the company.
The event started off with proverbial fireworks, as Nikola Motors CEO Trevor Milton was ushered into the event atop the iconic Anheuser-Busch carriage, pulled by a team of their famous Clydesdales. The over-the-top entrance set the tone for the night as Milton and his team proceeded to hype up each and every product announcement that followed.
On the vehicle side of things, Nikola Motor Company is known for its class 8 trucks. The Nikola One was the iconic product that the company started off with back in 2016 and has since built up from a concept vehicle into a much more fleshed out truck in what is now the Nikola Two day cab truck. The Nikola Two is a class 8 heavy truck with a day cab up top. Much like the Tesla Semi, it has a mid-cab entry that lets drivers walk into the open area behind the seats for easier ingress and egress.
At its core, the Nikola Two is an electric semi truck with up to 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 foot-pounds of torque. This power comes from rear-mounted motors that pull power from the combination of a 125 kilowatt-hour traction battery and the onboard hydrogen fuel cell stack. This system combines hydrogen from its massive tanks and oxygen from the ambient air in the fuel cell to generate electricity.
The theory is that the electric motors give Nikola’s semi trucks all the benefits of a zero-emission electric powertrain, while the hydrogen tanks and fuel cell stack allow for vehicles to refill in a matter of 15–20 minutes from a network of hydrogen fueling stations that the company will stand up in the coming years. More on that in a bit. Hydrogen has two advantages over battery electric vehicles in that refilling a hydrogen tank is much faster than the current charging rates for battery electric vehicles.
The Race To Faster Fueling
Long-range fully electric semi trucks will take 5–6 hours for a full charge of a 500 kWh electric semi truck battery at today’s 125 kW Supercharging rates. Tesla’s new V3 Supercharging will raise that bar to 250 kW speeds and Ionity’s 350 kW chargers are already starting to roll out in Europe, so hope is on the horizon for electric vehicles. Tesla’s new V3 Supercharging architecture also hints at dedicated 1MW pipes for its Semi Trucks, which could deliver a full charge to a 500 kWh Semi truck in a matter of 30–40 minutes.
Today’s technology favors hydrogen fuel cell trucks when it comes to refueling speed, but it’s a moot point to argue the semantics in too much detail since the Tesla Semi will not go into production until next year, while Nikola’s trucks are several years farther out, with the first vehicles rolling off the production line in 2022.
A Lighter Weight Energy Storage System
Milton also shared that his hydrogen fuel cell trucks would be several thousand pounds lighter than comparable battery electric vehicles. With every pound of hauling capacity potentially translating to more income for drivers, this could be a game changer for hydrogen, but there are some significant hurdles to be overcome before this even has a shot at becoming much of a sticking point.
On the surface, it sounds like a valid issue, as Trevor shared how a trucker hauling meat would earn more revenue with an extra 5,000 pounds of meat onboard, but that doesn’t translate to every industry. Companies using trucks to move goods around are increasingly utilizing distribution centers, where they can mix loads of goods from various parts of the business into a single truck, destined for a single customer. In addition to reducing the number of trucks they have to ship to any given customer, it also allows them to blend high density, heavier goods with lighter weights goods to maximize the weight and value of each and every load. This also dilutes the need to maximize the carrying capacity of any single truck.
Time will tell how much of an impact this has and if there is truly any difference between the weight of the Nikola Two when it comes to market in three years and the Tesla Semi when it arrives next year. Until then, it feels like hydrogen fuel cells have the advantage, if that’s something they can even say without knowing who will be supplying their fuel cell stack or how much it will weigh.
Fueling Station Network
In parallel to building up its vehicle offerings, Nikola Motor Company must establish and launch a network of high-capacity hydrogen fueling stations that its customers can use to keep their vehicles topped up on local, regional, and long-haul routes across the United States and Europe. The North American launch will come first, with the Nikola Two launching in 2022. The European spec Nikola Tre coming in 2023.
The fueling station network is perhaps the most bold part of the Nikola plan and has the company partnering with the hydrogen fueling station experts at Norwegian Nel Hydrogen Fueling to build up the network. As of today, the largest hydrogen fueling station in the world is a 1 ton demonstration station operated by the pair that’s located near Nikola’s new headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.
The pair is planning to bring a larger R&D station online in 2020, followed by the world’s first 8 ton per day station in 2021. After establishing the framework for the scalable model, work will commence on building out the planned network of 700 of the 8 ton stations across the United States and Europe.
Nikola Motor Company originally partnered with Swedish firm PowerCell to supply its hydrogen fuel cell stack for its vehicles, but after nearly 2 years of testing, the agreement fell apart just a few weeks prior to Nikola World. On April 4th, 2019, PowerCell CEO Per Wassén confirmed that the agreement had been terminated. “The tests have been going well but since we viewed Nikola’s proposed business terms as totally unacceptable, and turned them down, Nikola has decided to discontinue our cooperation for serial production,” Wassén said. “The stacks have performed well, and we have achieved the needed performance. PowerCell could, however, not accept the business terms proposed by Nikola for a continued cooperation, why Nikola has announced that they do not plan to use our stacks when they start serial production of their trucks.”
The fuel cell stack is the heart of any hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and left the Nikola Motor Company without the engine that makes the entire hydrogen fuel cell vehicle work in the first place. In the breakout on Hydrogen at Nikola World the following day, Nikola executive vice president of hydrogen Jessie Schneider dodged a question about the tumultuous relationship with PowerCell, only stating that he could not comment on the company’s plans for a fuel cell stack provider.
The absence of the actual fuel cell stack that will convert hydrogen for all of its trucks is a significant gap that confirms that Nikola Motor Company has not moved beyond prototypes towards a production-ready release candidate. It is not an insurmountable chasm, but it is the heart of any fuel cell vehicle that requires significant integration to the hydrogen storage system, high-voltage system, battery, airflow, aerodynamics, and more.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and battery electric vehicles are both zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles. That’s a great start, but they both also rely on electricity for their fuel source. Battery electric vehicles charge up with electricity in its native form, while hydrogen is extracted through electrolysis, where an electrical current is essentially applied to water, splitting apart the hydrogen and oxygen. Nikola Motor Company’s plan is to do this at each fueling station, with the resulting hydrogen being captured, stored, and compressed before being sold to customers.
Battery electric vehicles are around 90% efficient with the electricity that flows into the charger when it is converted into motion by the onboard motors.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are understandably less efficient, using the source electricity to break apart water, compress it, transfer it into the vehicle, then convert it back into electricity by combining it with ambient oxygen. Estimates for the efficiency of the electricity used to produce hydrogen, then get converted back to electricity in fuel cell vehicles, is around 40%.
In summary, they both start with electricity. That electricity can come from the grid, where it will be as clean as the grid is, or it can be sourced from 100% renewables generated on the rooftop and surrounding areas. That capability exists for both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It’s just twice as efficient in battery electric vehicles.
Nikola bragged about its clean credentials at Nikola World, but later clarified that its early hydrogen fueling stations would use between 30 and 100% renewable energy to produce their hydrogen. On the other hand, it dogged battery electric vehicles with ugly infographics that conjured images of the marketing tactics used by big oil and the tobacco companies.
The world needs all of the zero-emission technologies it can get, as quickly as it can, as cheaply as possible, to solve the climate crisis, and infighting doesn’t help that. Bold-faced lying actually takes that the other direction and holds us all back with misinformation, and inevitably delays the transition to zero-emission transportation solutions. When Nikola Motor Company was held to account for its inaccurate infographic on Twitter, the company did pull it from the website.
The Road To The Market
The Nikola Two is slated for production in 2022, at which time the landscape for electric class 8 vehicles will have changed significantly. Improvements in charging speed and competition from new energy companies like Tesla and BYD will have matured as they push to leverage their first-mover advantage. Industry incumbents also hope to have their say in the electrification of heavy vehicles, with moves into electrification by Cummins, Daimler’s Freightliner, Volkswagen, and many, many more on the way.
The underpinnings of the Nikola Two will also serve as the foundation for its cab-over Nikola Tre and the Nikola One, both of which are slated for production in 2023. The full lineup of Nikola Motor Company vehicles is impressive, but it is important to keep things in context. The company does not have a factory and, in fact, just purchased 400 acres of land that it hopes to build its factory on last month.