Thanks to automakers like Tesla, Nissan, BMW and General Motors, we’ve seen a real explosion in the number of electric cars on sale, as well as a dramatic change in attitudes towards electric cars. And while electric cars still account for a tiny proportion of the total number of cars sold globally every month, more and more people are using plug-in vehicles as their daily drivers.
While electric cars and plug-in hybrids are taking an ever-increasing role in the transportation of people in major cities (and even longer-distances thanks to the Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X and Tesla Supercharger network) however, we’re still relying on dirty diesel-engined trucks and locomotives to move freight around. And although there are now several different electric cargo van and medium-duty plug-in truck choices available for moving smaller loads around the urban jungle, long-distance tractor trailers are still one hundred percent reliable on fossil fuels.
If you read the Grand Master Plan Part Deux of Tesla CEO Elon Musk (as released a few weeks back), you’ll know that the California company is working on solving that problem by designing and building its own Tesla-branded all-electric semi-trucks for launch some time in the next decade or so. But earlier this week, Nikola Motor Company — a startup clearly eager to mould itself in Tesla’s image — announced it would be holding a launch event on December 2 for its Nikola One plug-in hybrid class 8 truck.
For those unfamiliar with truck classification, a class 8 truck is essentially the largest classification of commercial trucks in the United States based on the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). A vehicle with a GWVR exceeding 33,000 pounds (14,969 kilograms, these vehicles typically have more than 3 axles and encompass the standard five-axle tractor-trailer combination (known as an 18-wheeler) that can be seen on pretty much every major route in the U.S. today. To drive one, drivers must have a Class B Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) or Class A (CDL) license.
In other words, should it reach production in the near future (and isn’t beaten to market by Tesla or any rival firms) the Nikola One will be the world’s first commercial plug-in hybrid truck capable of pulling a standard semi trailer.
Nikola Motor claims the Nikola One will be 100 percent zero emissions, but while that’s a bold claim it does rather depend on how the vehicle is fuelled. You see, unlike Tesla’s planned electric semi, which will of course be one hundred percent electric, the Nikola One is actually a plug-in hybrid vehicle capable of travelling in zero emission mode or range-extended mode, a little like the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car.
Instead of a gasoline or diesel range-extending internal combustion engine however, the Nikola One features a fuel agnostic gas turbine optimised run on compressed natural gas (CNG). In optimum conditions, it can generate up to 400 kilowatts of electricity that can be used to power the truck’s sextet of electric motors (two per axle) or charge its massive 320 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion on board battery pack.
Given that CNG is itself a fossil fuel and has its own carbon emissions, it’s debatable if the Nikola One is fully zero emission. However, Nikola Motor says that the truck can be filled up from a charging station when time permits (full charging times are not given yet) and can drive without using the range-extender when the battery pack has sufficient charge. Leave with a fully-charged battery pack, and the company claims the truck can travel between 100 and 200 miles on a full charge, depending on the size of the load it is carrying.
While all-electric range is just 100-200 miles, Nikola Motor says the Nikola One can travel up to 1,000 miles on CNG + electric power, making it perfect for long-distance truckers covering large swathes of the U.S. where fuel stops are few and far between. To tackle the lack of CNG fuelling infrastructure along major trucking routes, Nikola Motor says it will operate a similar business model to Tesla, manufacturing, installing and maintaining its own fuelling stations for customers to use. It will also mine and refine the CNG itself, making it possible to offer the first 25,000 owners are promised free fuel for the first million miles and then price-fix CNG at $1.50 per gallon thereafter.
With reservations coming in, we’ll be interested to see if the Nikola One materializes on December 2. With plenty of fuel savings and improved performance over a traditional diesel-powered vehicle, we’re expecting large fleets to sign up for the Nikola One in order to maximize their savings and minimize their carbon footprint, but what’s going to be most telling is if the high-tech truck will be able to go head-to-head with the Peterbilts of the world when it comes to independent owner-driver truckers, many of whom spend more money to buy a truck than they would to buy a home.
And then of course, there’s Tesla. While we’re eager to see Nikola Motor succeed with the Nikola One, we can’t help think that Tesla and its promised all-electric semi might just have the edge over the startup company, at least in terms of market visibility and potential market share.
Do you agree? Do you think the idea of a plug-in hybrid CNG truck is a good idea? Or is electric the only way?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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