Nikola Reveals Range of Hydrogen Fuel Cell and Battery-Electric Vehicles

Hydrogen fuel-cell electric Nikola Two reveal at the Nikola World event in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Ryan Gehm)

On-highway Class 6-8 trucks are Nikola's main business and engineering focus, but the Arizona-based startup is expanding its product range to include powersports and military sectors to demonstrate its technology's adaptability. In addition to the Nikola Two and Tre hydrogen fuel cell trucks for North America and Europe, respectively, the manufacturer revealed a battery-electric all-terrain vehicle, an autonomous-capable military vehicle, and a personal watercraft concept to about 2,000 attendees of the Nikola World opening event in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the company's headquarters.

Nikola Two hydrogen fuel-cell truck. (Ryan Gehm)

Nikola plans to offer battery-electric variants of its two day-cab semi-trucks, but CEO Trevor Milton expects hydrogen fuel cells to account for at least 80% of its business.

Nikola’s hydrogen-electric trucks have about 3,000 kWh of onboard energy, nearly three times that of Tesla’s truck, according to Milton. “We need to be able to go long distances; that’s where hydrogen really shines.” But hydrogen does not fit every application—thus, battery-electric will be offered for shorter, urban routes.

The hydrogen trucks cover a range between 500 and 1,200 miles (805 and 1,930 km), depending upon load.

Commenting on his electric-truck competitor, Milton said, “We want Tesla to succeed. There’s enough room for everyone to win. If they fail, it hurts us dramatically.”

A hydrogen truck weighs about 5,000 to 7,000 lb less than a battery-electric version with similar specs, Milton said. “In the trucking world, every pound is worth 50 cents a load. If you’re doing a load from LA to Las Vegas, you can add another $2,500 worth of freight with our [hydrogen] truck compared to an electric one,” he said.

Nikola Two e-axle features two liquid-cooled motors and a single-speed gearbox with independent drive of each side. (Ryan Gehm)

This equation helps to combat critics who question the economics of hydrogen because of its lower efficiency, he said. Hydrogen is converted at a 30-40% loss.

The Nikola One and Two hydrogen trucks are on target for production launch in 2022, according to Milton, who arrived on stage pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales. Anheuser-Busch has ordered 800 Class 8 zero-emission trucks from Nikola as part of its sustainability strategy. The Tre’s launch in Europe will follow in 2023.

Nikola Two fully digital cockpit. (Nikola)
While Nikola plans to offer battery-electric variants of its trucks, CEO Trevor Milton expects hydrogen fuel cells to account for at least 80% of its business. (Ryan Gehm)
The never-before-seen Nikola Tre for the European market features a narrower cab design than the Two and boasts a range between 500 and 750 miles depending upon load, with hydrogen fueling in less than 15 minutes. (Ryan Gehm)

Nikola has essentially stopped taking orders for its trucks because the current backlog already will take several years to fulfill. “We can sell more trucks than we could ever build for the next 20 years,” Milton said. The initial trucks produced are reserved for Nikola’s risk-sharing partner customers.

Milton also took the occasion to announce a new investment drive, with the goal of raising an additional $1.5 billion.

Technology-laden trucks

Nikola’s three heavy-duty trucks—which also includes the One, the extended sleeper cab version revealed in prototype form in December 2016—have been built with autonomous driving hardware in place.

Bosch is a major engineering partner on the fuel cell electric propulsion system including the dual-motor eAxle that delivers 1,000 hp (750 kW) and 2,000 lb·ft (2,710 N·m), as well as other advanced connectivity and "building block" automated technologies. Bosch engineers in the U.S. and Germany contributed more than 220,000 hours into the development of the Nikola trucks over the past two and a half years, according to Jason Roycht, VP of Commercial Vehicles & Off-Road for Bosch in North America.

“We could start with almost a blank sheet of paper, ‘How would you approach a truck E/E architecture for what they want to accomplish?’” Roycht explained. “When we look to ‘forward-proofing’ this truck for automated driving, we want to have built-in redundancies and functional safety approaches to take care of that. That’s fun engineering, figuring out how to set up the actuation and the computing power to be fully redundant and ready for whatever may happen.”

Over-the-air updates and monitoring is part of this future-proofing strategy.

Roycht noted that electric vehicles require about 25% less code compared to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. “You don’t need to worry about emissions controls and other optimization,” he said. “Everything we talk about here [for the Nikola trucks] is containable in a couple state-of-the-art controllers.”

Other “building block” technologies from Bosch include its Servotwin electric power steering system that will help to enable driver-assistance features such as lane-keeping assistance, side-wind compensation and traffic jam assist. Nikola expects to be the first truck OEM to make fully electric power steering standard on all its trucks.

A demo of the fuel cell electric truck illustrated its quiet operation. (Ryan Gehm)

Two cameras replace traditional mirrors and feed real-time images to high-resolution displays mounted inside the cab. The Mirror Cam System, developed by Bosch and Mekra Lang, captures both class II and class IV field of view and adjusts the monitor display to match the driving situation. A digital trailer panning feature shifts the view of the mirror system as the truck and trailer turn. The digital cameras offer aerodynamic advantages by reducing drag compared to much-larger traditional mirrors.

“What we now need is a change of the regulation to provide this system as a standard product for commercial vehicles,” said Juergen Stachl, director of sales and engineering at Mekra Lang North America.

For the Nikola One and Two, the unobstructed mid-cab entry behind the seats enables the driver position to be moved forward by almost 4 feet compared to a conventional diesel truck. Steps deploy automatically as the driver approaches the truck and retract after he or she enters the cab. The sidewalls have been moved out compared to the previous prototype to allow easier passage between the seats.

Aerodynamic drag is reduced by 20-30% due to the streamlined design, according to Milton.

Other suppliers and partners on-site in Scottsdale to discuss their contributions to Nikola’s vehicles included Mahle, Meritor, Pratt & Miller, TE Connectivity, WABCO and maintenance partner Ryder System.

Hydrogen fueling and standardization

Before the Nikola One, Two and Tre can hit the highways, a hydrogen fueling network must be established. Key to Nikola’s strategy is to generate the hydrogen on-site at scale.

The battery-electric Nikola Reckless military all-terrain vehicle was operated via remote control on the test track. (Ryan Gehm)
Redesigned battery-electric NZT. (Ryan Gehm)

The company is working with Norway-based Nel Hydrogen to develop a standard 70-MPa high-flow fueling station that can produce 8 tons of hydrogen per day and fill an 80-kg tank in 10-15 minutes. Such a site could support about 150 heavy-duty trucks and 200 cars per day.

Stations will be scalable up to 32 tons per day for truck depots.

Lease customers will have a $0.90-per-mile rate that includes truck payments, maintenance and fuel cost. Public users will pay less than $6 per kilogram.

“We have new equipment that we’re developing for heavy-duty—about 300 grams per second—which is five or six times the flow rate of light-duty,” said Jesse Schneider, Nikola’s Executive Vice President of Hydrogen. “We are working with essentially all of the standards organizations [including SAE and ISO] and directly with industry partners in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to enable safe and fast fueling.”

The goal is worldwide standardization for heavy-duty so that one nozzle will fit all vehicles, and vehicles can fill up at any station in less than 15 minutes. “We want to learn from the electric-vehicle world and have one standard,” he said. “This is a big deal.”

(Read more on Schneider, who during his time at BMW became the SAE Taskforce Chair for the J2601 hydrogen refueling standard for the light- and medium-duty markets.)

A station will require about 17.6 megawatts to operate. Renewable sources such as solar panels and wind turbines will account for at least 30-40% of that, according to Schneider. The goal is 100% renewable, if possible.

Nikola recently opened its first hydrogen station, with 1-ton storage of gaseous hydrogen, at its Phoenix headquarters. A 2-ton/day heavy-duty R&D station is currently being developed, completion of which is expected in first quarter 2020.

The first 8-ton station is coming in 2021, at an “undisclosed location” in California next to a customer for testing of a fleet of vehicles in the field. Ramp-up of 10 stations begins in 2022, with an eventual goal of more than 700 stations in the U.S.

“It solves the chicken and the egg—the station comes at the same time as the trucks,” said Nel CEO Jon André Løkke. “And anyone who is running a hydrogen car also can come to the station and fuel their cars. That’s a great service to society.”

Powersports and military vehicles

Nikola introduced the redesigned NZT all-terrain vehicle at the Nikola World event, which attendees could ride on a closed course. The battery-electric NZT features a fully enclosed cab that “rivals automotive engineering,” according to Nikola Powersports President Michael Erickson.

Nikola will evaluate the response to its battery-powered WAV concept to determine if it will produce it. (Ryan Gehm)

The NZT has been in development for three years and will be available in 2021, one year ahead of the Class 8 trucks. The company expects Powersports sales to be a relatively small percentage of its overall business. “But an important portion of the business, as it precedes production of the truck and demonstrates the ability to commercialize technology in the marketplace,” said Erickson.

An autonomous-capable military all-terrain vehicle, the Nikola Reckless, was operated via remote control on stage and during a demo on the track with an electric drone for reconnaissance. The current iteration is battery-electric, but a Nikola engineer said that a hydrogen fuel cell version is in the works.

“With virtually no sound and no heat signature, the Reckless provides new meaning to stealth,” said Andrew Christian, Nikola Powersports VP of business development and defense. “We believe all military vehicles will transform to battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cells in the future.”

The Nikola Water Adventure Vehicle (WAV) concept debuts a “wakeboard” architecture powered by batteries. It features LED lights and can receive updates over-the-air. Nikola will evaluate the response to the WAV concept to determine if it will produce the watercraft.