A recent event in the US – one that has nothing to do with Donald Trump –may well prove to be a significant landmark in the road transport history, but it may equally turn out to be another of the many dead ends that lead from the highway to technological Nirvana.
The launch of the Nikola One and Two models took place at the Nikola Motor Company’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The name is in honour of electrical pioneer Nicola Tesla.
As well as the revolutionary appearance of the clean-sheet cab design, the core feature of the Nikola trucks is the driveline, comprising a hydrogen fuel cell driving electric motors.
They come complete with an innovative acquisition business model, extensive refuelling infrastructure plans and a ready-made support network.
Looking at the technical specification first, the trucks will build on experience gained from the initial product, the Nikola Zero, a car-sized utility vehicle with up to 520hp of hydrogen-fuelled power driving four wheel hub motors.
The Nikola One prototype (pictured) is a 6x4 top-weight Class 8 tractor with a futuristic semi-cabover design. The Nikola Two is a more conventional-looking bonneted design.
Unlike traditional drivelines, the driven wheels will each have their own electric motor. The prototype truck has 1,000hp and 2,700Nm available, which is claimed to be enough to outperform any existing diesel Class 8 truck.
How does it work?
Its hydrogen fuel cell works when required to charge an array of lithium-ion batteries, expected to weigh 1,350kg to 1,800kg, depending on final specification.
While the outright range on hydrogen power should be 800 to 1,200 miles, in the event of a charging system failure there will still be 100 to 200 miles of range from the batteries alone.
Although plug-in charging isn’t necessary, Nikola fuel stations will have a range-extending top-up facility available for use during rest periods.
Fuel consumption is expected to be equivalent to 15 to 20 miles per US gallon (18mpg to 24mpg).
The acquisition model is based on an all-in leasing deal, with a monthly payment of $5,000 to $7,000 (£3,975 to £5,565) a month, depending on trim level and options, over a life of six years or one million miles, whichever comes first.
This figure will include unlimited hydrogen fuel, warranty and scheduled maintenance. The approach, with its fixed operating costs, is expected to appeal to owner-drivers and large fleets alike.
Beyond its dynamic abilities, the two greatest questions concern the refuelling and support infrastructure.
For fuel production, Nikola’s plan is to develop a series of solar farms to create hydrogen from water through electrolysis. This will then be distributed in compressed or liquid form using road tankers hauled by Nikola trucks, to a planned network of 364 filling stations placed throughout the US and Canada. The target coverage is a station every 400 miles on strategic routes.
With this system operational, the company can justifiably claim to provide 100% emissions-free transport, which exceeds all anticipated US legislation for the next 10 years (including the EPA’s recently announced stringent Phase 2 greenhouse gas standards).
Obviously, building a truck brand from scratch creates support issues, but Nikola has entered a partnership with Ryder System to provide a full maintenance and warranty service through 800 depots across North America.
The final part of the deal will be Nikola Shipments, a dedicated routeing and scheduling software package that incorporates the refuelling and maintenance outlets into its usual functions.
While Nikola trucks are unlikely to appear in Europe in their present form, given the company’s apparent readiness to licence its car battery technology to established manufacturers, we wouldn’t rule out the same approach being taken if the truck launch is successful.
The first Nikola trucks are expected to be in service around the time Trump’s first term of office is due to end, in 2020. If the Nikola proposition achieves its targets, it will revolutionise North American road transport, with obvious knock-on implications for the rest of the world.