Nikola Looks to Accelerate Production, Hydrogen Infrastructure

Nikola’s merger with VectoIQ will accelerate its plans for vehicle design, breaking ground on a manufacturing plant and kick-starting hydrogen station rollout.

Anticipated to cover North America, Nikola’s build-out of hydrogen fueling stations will serve its customers’ fleets, such as Anheuser-Busch. (Nikola)

Nikola Corp.’s recent merger with VectoIQ Acquisition Corp., a publicly traded special-purpose acquisition company, is expected to help accelerate the company’s technology and business plans. In early June, the combined company’s shares began trade on the Nasdaq under the new ticker symbol “NKLA.” Shortly following the announcement, Nikola’s Elizabeth Fretheim, head of business development, national accounts, spoke during an edition of CALSTART’s weekly Clean Commercial Transportation Update webinar about the news and other developments.

“Nikola has ambitious plans,” Fretheim told webinar attendees. “We’re focused not only on the vehicles – the Badger [pickup truck], of course we have the semi-trucks, we also have a power sports division – but then we’re also trying to resolve that ‘chicken-and-egg’ question about putting up infrastructure before vehicles are ready, or vehicles before infrastructure. So, we’re working on that parallel path.”

Transaction proceeds through the merger will help Nikola accelerate plans for vehicle design and production, breaking ground on a manufacturing plant as well as kick-start the rollout of hydrogen stations. The new manufacturing plant is slated to break ground in Coolidge, Ariz., on July 23, 2020, according to a June 19 tweet from Nikola founder and executive chairman Trevor Milton. “The ceremony will be held there to kick off construction of the plant that will build up to 35,000 zero-emission semi-trucks and create thousands of jobs,” he wrote.

Anheuser-Busch is Nikola’s launch customer for its fuel-cell-electric truck. “We’re definitely more well known for the fuel-cell side. Our plan is to build battery-electric as well as fuel-cell-electric trucks. In fact, our launch vehicle will be a battery-electric,” Fretheim shared.

Battery-electric leads the way

Set to debut in December at Nikola World 2020, the Badger battery-electric pickup truck will offer an estimated 300-mile (480-km) range, about half of the anticipated 600 miles (965 km) of range for the hydrogen fuel-cell-electric model. Preorders for both models began on June 29. The pickup will be built in partnership with another OEM using their certified parts and manufacturing facilities. Nikola says the OEM partnership will be announced prior to the December event.

Claimed to accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 2.9 seconds, the Badger will generate more than 906 hp (676 kW) and 980 lb-ft (1,329 Nm) and offer independent torque control of each wheel, according to Milton. Other features will include over-the-air updates, keyless entry, 15 kW power export with 220V and 110V, a hidden refrigerator and waterproof displays, he added.

Based on the Iveco S-Way heavy-duty truck, the battery-electric Nikola Tre for European markets was slated to debut in September at the IAA 2020 commercial vehicle exhibition in Germany, which has since been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first units are expected to reach customers in 2021. The Tre is the first step toward Nikola’s fuel-cell-electric model, which will be available to customers by 2023.

“When you talk about zero emissions in the future, the conversation isn’t ‘is it battery or is it hydrogen?’ We think it’s both. The different technologies have strengths in different operating environments and duty cycles. Both are electric drivetrains – the drivetrain is basically the same. It’s just where you’re storing or generating the energy,” she explained.

With where battery technology is currently, battery-electric vehicles are more suitable to applications with shorter range, that return-to-base and have time to recharge the battery, Fretheim said. “Where we are, both on the battery charge and infrastructure side, you’re going to need some time – a couple of hours at least – to recharge a battery.”

On the flip side, fuel-cell vehicles are equipped for longer-range applications that possibly have heavier payloads, according to Fretheim. “Or if you have what I call a ‘quick-turn application’: the trucks are going out, coming back, maybe one driver jumps out and another driver jumps in and the truck needs to keep going.” Fueling a hydrogen truck is more equivalent to a diesel experience, she added – 10 to 15 minutes versus a couple of hours.

With some port drayage companies, for example, even though their lengths of haul are quite short – in some cases, less than 20 miles – those trucks are constantly moving and running 20 to 24 hours a day, which doesn’t allow time to recharge. In these cases, the fuel cell is a better option, Fretheim said. “I hope as we move forward to transform to zero emission, we can find a solution that works for every trucking company as the infrastructure [expands] as well,” she said.