Fuel Smarts

Nikola One Fuel Cell Electric Truck Promises High Fuel Economy, Low Maintenance

December 01, 2016, by Tom Berg

<p><strong>A&nbsp;wrap was removed and the Nikola One prototype revolved before the enthusiastic audience at the Dec. 1 unveiling. Liquified hydrogen is stored in bottles behind the long sleeper-cab.&nbsp;<em>Photos: Tom Berg&nbsp;</em></strong></p>

SALT LAKE CITY -- If enthusiasm ensures success, Nikola One, the fuel cell-electric long-haul tractor unveiled Thursday night in Salt Lake City, is a sure thing. A form-fitting white wrap came off the streamlined vehicle amid applause, cheers and whistles from hundreds of guests who think it might really be the game changer for the trucking industry that its proponents claim.

Their cheerleader was Trevor Milton, founder and CEO of Nikola Motor Co., the start-up firm that’s designing the electrically propelled truck and preparing it for production. Milton, who made his entrance on an electric off-road vehicle called the Nikola Zero, opened the presentation noting that development has been difficult, but he offered a quote from Oren Harari that he said 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." His small company could take the chances on a revolutionary product that a large corporation simply cannot do, he said.

Milton unveiled the truck while providing details of how the truck's electric drive system will 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.

Nikola trucks will be sold and serviced by Ryder System, an agreement announced earlier Thursday. Ryder’s maintenance expertise and more than 800 locations will provide complete support for the trucks, Milton said.  

<p><strong>Nikola Two, a daycab version, will expand the possible applications for the fuel cell-electric vehicles. It will cost less than the Nikola One sleeper-equipped tractor. <em>Image: Nikola Motor</em></strong></p>

The Nikola One sleeper-cab is aimed at the long-haul market composed of owner-operators and fleets of various sizes. Milton said a daycab version, called Nikola Two, will join the sleeper and expand the applications suited for the fuel cell-electric truck. It looks like a typical conventional-cab tractor. 

A Nikola vehicle’s economics appear impressive. Without an engine, transmission, driveline and axles, it should be cheap to maintain and will get double or triple the effective fuel economy of today’s diesel-powered trucks and tractors, Milton said. There'll be no tailpipe emissions; the only byproduct of the chemical reaction by which hydrogen generates electricity is water. A Nikola One will weigh about 17,000 pounds vs. 19,000 for a typical 15L diesel sleeper-cab tractor. 

A Nikola One will go 1,200 miles between fill-ups of liquefied hydrogen dispensed at a network of 364 stations that Nikola will build and operate throughout the United States. Fuel cost will be built into the purchase or leasing agreement, so will be supplied at no charge for a truck’s first 1 million miles.

Operating software called Nikola Shipment will combine routing navigation with load finding to minimize miles traveled and maximize revenue. The software will be standard with Nikola One.  

Early Fleet Reaction

So intriguing is the concept that many of those in the audience had put down $1,500 per truck to reserve one or more of them. Nikola has raised about $4 billion from the orders alone, Milton claimed.  

Customers include KTI Ltd. of Pulaski, Virginia, a small fleet whose vice president, Adam King, said they ordered one; and U.S. Xpress, the giant operation in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose chairman and CEO, Max Fuller, has reserved enough that his fleet's name is emblazoned on the Nikola One prototype.

“I’ve come up here five or six times to talk with them, making suggestions” on how the truck should be designed for what it must do, Fuller told HDT. In an introductory video he declared, "I've no ownership in the company, but I can tell you that I'm pretty excited about how the company's coming forward, and how the product's coming to the market."

Nikola One is intriguing, but “it must hold up,” said Jay England, CEO of Utah-based Pride Inc. “It’s got to be durable and reliable.” Whether or not it is will be discovered through real-life operations.

That’s why KTI ordered just a single Nikola One, said Joshua King, Adam’s father and the company’s president. “We’ll start with that and see.”

The Kings ordered the Nikola because they think it will appeal to drivers, “and the driver shortage is a big concern to us now,” he said. “They’ll like it for the comfort, and the power, and the quietness.” 

More details

<p><strong>Trevor Milton, founder and CEO of Nikola Motor, listed the electric-propelled truck's advantages and declared, "This truck will come to market. I can guarantee that."</strong></p>

A fully independent suspension supplied by Meritor will smooth the ride, Milton said in his presentation, and the silent hydrogen fuel cell and electric motors will contribute to quietness. Together the six motors will make up to 1,000 hp and 2,000 lb-ft of torque, enough for "unbelievable acceleration" and to move an 80,000-pound rig up a 6% grade at 65 mph, Milton claimed.

The fuel cell produces electricity that’s sent to bank of advanced lithium-ion batteries, from where it’s sent to the motors, one at each wheel position of the three-axle tractor. Batteries are mounted between frame rails for a low center of gravity and high stability. Wheel-by-wheel torque vectoring helps in cornering. Regenerative braking sends more electric energy to the batteries, and does 85% of the stopping a rig requires. Air disc brakes take care of the rest.

Milton gave no exact production date, and while guests who have placed orders are simply unsure of when they will get their trucks, they didn’t seem edgy about it. Milton did announce that the first 5,000 units will be produced by Fitzgerald Gliders in east Tennessee.  

Meanwhile, Nikola will build a plant with a capacity of 50,000 trucks a year, using many robotic assembly operations to minimize assembly errors. Milton and his colleagues are discussing possibilities with several states and will announce a site choice in mid 2017.

Price was not mentioned but might be covered in Friday sessions hosted by Ryder, Nikola trucks' future distributors. One figure mentioned by a fleet manager who had ordered a truck was $400,000 to $415,000 each. 

<p><strong>Following the presentation, guests stood in a long line to see the Nikola One up close and inspect its interior. <em>Photo: Tom Berg</em></strong></p>

To dispell any notions that Nikola Motor Co. will stumble and disappear, Milton closed his presentation by declaring, "This truck will come to market. That I can guarantee."


  1. 1. Chris [ December 02, 2016 @ 03:49AM ]

    This is very cool technology but what is missing from the zero emissions discussion is the cost of hydrogen production and where the hydrogen is produced from.

  2. 2. Jerod [ December 02, 2016 @ 06:13AM ]

    That's true Chris, but even assuming natural gas this should a major win for everyone involved including the environment. Coal maybe, depending on how "clean" it is. This would be perfect for wind/solar, as the storage is the hydrogen they manufacture, so overproducing on sunny/windy days can cover the slow wind/nights.

  3. 3. John Baxter [ December 02, 2016 @ 07:19AM ]

    Chris hit the nail on the head. Hydrogen is not "plentiful" and must be generated with fuel--or perhaps solar or wind power. There is no free lunch in thermodynamics. The energy to rin this thing will likely cost much more than just using diesel fuel.

  4. 4. Carl [ December 02, 2016 @ 08:11AM ]

    People miss one of the biggest benefits. Even if the energy is generated by coal or other fossil fuel, it STILL is way more efficient than individual diesel trucks. Most energy is wasted as dissipated heat. Power plants use virtually all of the energy to create electricity. The last two benefits are reclaiming the energy from breaking and the lack of owners messing with emission systems to "improve" performance.

  5. 5. Jim Park [ December 02, 2016 @ 11:43AM ]

    It was noted in the presentation last night that Nikola plans to build a 100-megawatt solar panel array somewhere which will provide electrical energy for the electrolysis process and the liquification of the H2 gas. If that works out, the truck and the upstream operations will totally self-sustaining and produce nearly zero emissions.

  6. 6. John Baxter [ December 02, 2016 @ 11:44AM ]

    Carl, powerplants that burn coal struggle to be as efficient as a diesel. Also, fuel cells are no more efficient than a diesel. Unless the hydrogen is generated with solar and wind power, there may not be that much advantage in terms of energy cost savings. However, the truck's ability to use regenerative braking could help a lot, especially in situations where there is a lot of braking. It could be successful, depending upon just where a fleet operates and how the hydrogen is generated. But, I am not yet convinced that it is a panacea for our energy and pollution problems.

  7. 7. Joe Licari [ December 02, 2016 @ 08:53PM ]

    Since this hybrid truck will use electricity to drive the truck and for hotel loads, does it make sense to offer plug in capability for when the truck is parked long-term, such as for hours-of-service rest periods and for weekly resets in the OTR market? Is it better to run the truck off grid power than to use on-board hydrogen to operate hotel loads and if it is, does the truck come with plug-in capability?

  8. 8. Steve Hake [ December 05, 2016 @ 06:41AM ]

    Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but to produce Hydrogen don't you heat natural gas to produce it? Or is there another process that doesn't involve natural gas?

  9. 9. Linda Gaines [ December 05, 2016 @ 08:04AM ]

    I doubt that they've raised $4 billion (do the math). And I wonder if it's actually more efficient, when you take into account the impacts of H2 production. Also wonder how the company will cover H2 costs, unless they build it into the price of the truck. Maybe it's like the old joke: they make it up on the volume.

  10. 10. Kevin Nussbaum [ December 05, 2016 @ 02:08PM ]

    While hydrogen cost is built into the price, I would like to see normal maintenance procedures so true costs can be assessed. ie: Can this be aligned like a standard unit? Surely there are grease points somewhere, etc...

  11. 11. Outlaw [ December 09, 2016 @ 04:49AM ]

    Haven't any of you people ever heard of HHO gas and without oxygen sensors we could all be using it in our cars but with the sensors it cannot be done without modifying it in some way. Read up on hydrogen on demand.

  12. 12. Duane [ December 29, 2016 @ 12:02PM ]

    Regarding questions here about the hydrogen fuel itself, hydrogen gas can be produced in any of several common industrial methods, all of which consume energy, but of course production of diesel fuel also consumes energy as well, in terms of field production, bulk transport, and refining. All energy production consumes energy, but the net energy produced is very high for hydrogen because fuel cells are two to three times as efficient in converting chemical energy input (from fuel) to power produced at the drive axle.

    Common production methods include steam reformation of hydrocarbons including natural gas or propane; electrolysis - which can convert wind or solar or other electrical energy into hydrogen gas; and catalytic cracking of ammonia gas. Retail hydrogen fuel sells at varying costs, but is generally sold at near $1 per GGE (gallon of gasoline equivalent), which is pretty darned cheap.

    While there is not yet a large hydrogen retail delivery infrastructure in place, there IS a large infrastructure in place to deliver hydrogen fuel source products (hydrocarbons, ammonia, water, electricity) all over the developed world. Indeed, you can even install your own in-home hydrogen generating station, operating off natural gas and electricity - Honda sells the generators to their buyers of their Clarity fuel cell vehicles. Scaled up models of such generators could easily be installed at existing gas stations, C-stores, and other retail facilities.


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