When Tesla launched the limited-production Tesla Roadster in 2008, it became something of an agent of change in the automotive world, challenging the electric vehicle preconceptions of both car buyers and auto industry insiders alike. Less than a decade later, Tesla is not only continuing to challenge ideas about what an electric car could (or should) be but doing so in such a way that its competitors — many of whom dismissed the company in its infancy — are rushing to play catchup.
However you feel about the company or its management style, Tesla’s dominance of the plug-in world is undeniable. Indeed, Tesla’s influence has been so great that many new companies have been founded from Detroit Electric through to Faraday Future. All of them without exception want a piece of Tesla’s tasty market share pie.
It’s not just automakers either: Tesla’s runaway electric car success is something that Utah-based Nikola Motor Company is hoping to replicate in the trucking world. As we reported earlier this month, its first vehicle — named the Nikola One — promises zero emission capabilities, a long range in between charges and a 6×6 electric drivetrain that is man enough to power an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer combination. Due to debut at the start of December, Nikola Motor began taking deposits from would-be buyers earlier this year, and already has an impressive number of companies and owner-operators signed up to take part.
But while the world debut of the Nikola One is less than 100 days away, the company announced this morning that it is making a major change to the Nikola One’s drivetrain that will see it switch from using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as its range-extending fuel of choice to a hydrogen fuel cell stack.
As recently as last month, Nikola was promising that the Nikola One would feature a fuel agnostic gas turbine optimised to run on compressed natural gas, which would generate up to 400 kilowatts of electricity that could be used to provide range-extending capabilities one the truck’s massive 320 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack had been depleted. As part of its deal to the first 25,000 early adopters, the company said it would install a nationwide network of CNG stations along major U.S. highways where truckers would be able to fill up for free for their first million miles.
At the time, we questioned Nikola’s claim of zero emissions, since the burning of CNG — however cleanly — does produce some tailpipe emissions. And although the vehicle as it stood then came with its own on-board charger to enable its massive 320 kilowatt-hour battery pack to be recharged from a public charging station, the whole reason of having the turbine on board in the first place was to extend the vehicle’s range to 1,000 miles or more.
It’s not entirely clear why Nikola Motor has decided to replace CNG with Hydrogen, but we’d guess it has something to do with the general trend away from CNG and toward hydrogen fuel in the alternative fuel market which, in turn, probably means there are more grants and low-interest loans available for a vehicle designed to operate on hydrogen rather than CNG.
Of course, there are also environmental benefits to using hydrogen over CNG. While most commercial hydrogen today is produced through the steam reforming of CNG — a process that is very energy intensive and which is not zero emission — Nikola says it plans to build multiple 100-megawatt solar farms throughout the U.S. where it will use solar power to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, using the hydrogen to then power its customers trucks.
As for refuelling? Filling up the massive on-board 100 kilogram cryogenic hydrogen fuel tanks won’t be particularly fast: Nikola says that its own refueling stations should replenish an empty Nikola one tank in between 20 and 30 minutes, noting that the wait is just long enough for the driver to stretch their legs, grab something to eat and visit the restroom before hitting the road again. Planning to built 56 filling stations across the U.S., Nikola Motor hopes that drivers will never be out of range of a nearby filling station.
Interestingly, while the filling stations will be designed for Nikola One customers to use, the company says it will also allow other people to fill up their hydrogen vehicles too at a cost of $4,00 per kilogram of hydrogen.
It’s worth noting too that although some outlets have dismissed the switch from CNG to Hydrogen, inaccurately reporting that the Nikola One will no-longer be an electric vehicle, we should note that having checked with Nikola Motors ourselves we can confirm that the truck will still come with the capability to charge its 320 kWh battery pack from an external charging station. Additionally, the company says that it will keep CNG as a fuel choice for some key markets where hydrogen fuel cell technology is not as well-supported.
But perhaps the most interesting point of Nikola Motor’s business model is the way in which it plans to offer customers free fuel for the first 1 million miles of their time with their truck, complete with scheduled maintenance and unlimited miles. The cost at the moment has yet to be finalized but Nikola Motor says customers should pay no more than between $5,000 and $7,000 per month. That’s far more than a standard Semi would cost, but does include fuel and maintenance. Considering the Nikola One gets a claimed 15-20 miles per gallon equivalent (compared with 5 miles per gallon equivalent for diesel-powered trucks) it’s easy to see the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid truck paying off for large fleets that need to carry long distances.
With no official publication of final specifications and the vehicle not due to be officially unveiled until the start of December, there are still a lot of unknowns about both Nikola Motors and the Nikola One. But if Nikola Motor makes good on its promise to bring a range-extended hydrogen fuel cell plug-in truck to market — and its vehicles meet the tough standards truckers demand of their vehicles when it comes to road handling, reliability and capability — the Nikola One could dramatically change the carbon footprint of heavy haulage forever.
That is of course, if Tesla and its promised all-electric Semi don’t come to market first…
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