Trevor Milton, founder and CEO of US-based Nikola Motor Company wants to transform trucking: everything about it “from the ground up”. And with the unveiling of his first prototype Nikola One all-electric long-haul tractor – which boasts an impressive 1,000bhp and 2,700Nm of torque (even higher with gear-reduction), plus a wind-cheating aerodynamic cab – NMC has taken the first step towards achieving that goal.
The sleek Nikola One has already undergone major changes since the concept was first revealed last year (TE August 2016). Its 320kW/h lithium-ion battery pack was originally to have been charged by a generator driven by a 400kW gas turbine fuelled by CNG (compressed natural gas) – making it effectively a range-extender hybrid.
However, for the North American market that drivetrain has now been replaced by a hydrogen-electric 800V fuel-cell that directly charges the tractor’s batteries. These, in turn, provide the power for individual electric wheel motors. Regenerative braking is also employed. Storage tanks mounted behind the extended sleeper cab hold some 100kg of compressed (5,000 psi) hydrogen – enough, says NMC, to deliver a range of 1,200 miles, based on a forecast fuel consumption of 15mpg (US). Filling time is 15 minutes.
Milton says the original CNG drivetrain will still be available for countries where hydrogen is not readily available.
Why the shift to H₂? NMC says it wanted its tractor to be both zero emission and ultra-quiet. “As this truck goes down the road the only thing coming out of it will be water droplets,” insists Milton. “And everyone around the world will be cheering for that.”
To support its Nikola One (sleeper) and Nikola Two (day cab) fuel-cell tractors, NMC plans to build a network of 364 hydrogen filling stations across the US and Canada, with construction starting in 2019. The firm will also develop a chain of its own 100MW solar farms, using water electrolysis to produce gas on a large-scale.
Incidentally, among the many innovations planned for this all-electric tractor is a system called Nikola Shipments, whereby freight brokers can upload information on available loads to the truck’s large dashboard display screen. The driver is then given a choice of routes to the load – including the most cost-effective within a given time-scale.
Making Nikola tractors in sufficient numbers will clearly take time. The first 5,000 will be assembled by the Fitzgerald Corporation, based in Tennessee. Fitzgerald manufactures what are known in the US as ‘Glider Kits’ – effectively trucks with new chassis and cabs but fitted with existing drivetrain components.
Ultimately, however, NMC wants its own US facility: the location is due to be revealed this summer. Meanwhile, Nikola has also entered into a service and maintenance agreement with Ryder Systems, which will provide back-up through 800 sites across North America.
To help persuade customers to embrace its revolutionary trucks, NMC is offering an attractive leasing program for the Nikola One that includes unlimited hydrogen fuel, warranty cover and scheduled maintenance during a 72-month term. The proposition has clearly fired the imagination of prospective users: according to Milton, NMC now has more than $4bn in pre-orders.
Meanwhile, the first prototype (a 6x6 – although most are expected to order 6x4s for weight reductions) was unveiled wearing the livery of US Xpress, the third largest privately-owned truckload carrier in the US, with 8,000 trucks and 22,000 trailers. US Xpress CEO Max Fuller provided operator feedback on the Nikola One design ahead of its official launch.