If Nikola Motor Company’s plans come to pass, its Nikola One series hybrid electric truck threatens to do to trucking what Tesla’s Model S has done within the auto industry.
Among a list of touted benefits, the natural-gas turbine powered rig could attack one of the biggest sore spots in the global transportation picture with 2-3 times better mpg than today’s diesels and “near zero” emissions.
The implications are huge as every gallon saved for fuel guzzlers amounts to more total fuel conserved than when saving one gallon for an already efficient vehicle, and Nikola is going into a market where a competitive truck can annually burn about 45,000 gallons of diesel if using a driver team, or about 25,000 gallons a year for a single driver.
There’s been talk of CNG and of turbines before, but Nikola touts a comprehensive strategy by wealthy natural gas advocates – primarily CEO and founder Trevor Milton – to merge with electrification to challenge diesel’s dominance.
“We are privately held and funded by wealthy groups and individuals including some family officers and VC groups. At this time, that is all we are willing to disclose,” said Milton in response to questions by HybridCars.com. “No government grants or assistance have been used to this point. This may change, but we have fully funded this internally with no help from state or federal monies.”
Not just a clean energy startup, Utah-based Nikola (pronounced Neek-oh-la) also owns natural gas wells, and thus its own fuel supply. With this, it aims to establish a network starting with 55 multi-bay stations around the country with discounted or subsidized fuel – ostensibly “free” for the first 25,000 customers to make a no brainer value proposition.
Last week upon announcing 7,000 intenders having plunked down $1,500 apiece to pre-order a vehicle that may be 3-4 years away from production, the company set the industry on notice.
“We believe we will pass the current market leaders like Daimler, PACCAR, Volvo and Navistar in sales orders within the next 12-24 months,” said Milton in a press statement. “Just imagine the orders that will come in once we begin taking dealer applications. We have shown other OEMs and their shareholders why they should be nervous about Nikola Motor Company.”
Notable is that fleet buyers tend to make decisions based on total ownership cost, not only acquisition cost (price). Milton said orders have come from “all over the USA,” including from major fleets. While a place in line has relatively low barrier to entry, the company believes it will have about 10-20 percent drop off from its orders.
The $375,000 truck costs twice what a conventional turbo diesel semi tractor does, but is being promoted as so frugal in operating and maintenance costs, that it can net out to zero, or at least well worth it, versus traditional competitors. At the same time it is faster, quieter, more spacious, and so far no one has been able to see much downside, if any.
It is “beyond too good to be true,” as a customer testimonial puts it, and while much yet needs to be proven, Milton said Nikola is on its way to its bold agenda. Presently, the company is in a $300 million A round of funding and this too is going to plan.
“We are doing very well. It should be wrapped up by December,“ said Milton of the fundraising, adding the company will meet its future financial goals. “We will ensure we have plenty of cash on hand to execute our business plan at all times.”
The Nikola One is a class 8 vehicle meaning it has an 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating. A working prototype is due December, 2, 2016, Milton anticipates production within three-four years, and its specifications sheet reads like a fantasy wish list for tech geeks and environmentalists.
With emissions several times better than a diesel semi, and 2-3 times better mpg than a 6 mpg traditional diesel rig, it might be the closest concept yet to something that could be approved of by both T. Boone Pickens and Elon Musk.
“Nikola believes in clean burning natural gas and hopes to transfer America off of diesel as soon as possible,” says the company.
The 80,000-rpm turbine such as helicopters use but tailored for this application is actually able to run on a number of fuels. It will use only CNG in the U.S. while other markets will get options.
“In some countries they do not have available CNG, so we will allow them to order with diesel or other fuels,” said Milton. “It does not affect the powertrain or performance at all.”
Turbines are known to be extremely clean without exotic “after treatment” technologies. A diesel needs a catalytic converter, urea injection, ultra low sulfur diesel, and advanced engine controls to scrub the exhaust, but lower decibel turbines – such as Wrightspeed is also developing – can even get away with a conventional muffler.
While holding back whether all that is true for its specific turbine, Nikola’s in-house built unit is advertised as generating 400 kW of energy to charge the 320-kWh battery assembly that’s 3.5 times bigger than what comes in the most-powerful Tesla Model S. It is also assembled in-house Tesla style from 32,000 18,650 cells.
The truck operates as a series hybrid, which is to say drive is all electric. It has six in-wheel 800-volt AC traction motors and in principle works along the lines of a diesel locomotive. The generator is just there to charge the battery, not unlike a Chevy Volt’s engine, and the powertrain output is 2,000 horsepower, 3,700 pounds-feet of torque, compared to a conventional diesel truck’s 500 horses and 1,675 pounds-feet.
Instead of a multi-speed transmission with clutch pedal, there is just an accelerator and a brake for the two-speed automatic transmission with direct drive and low-noise gears.
This combined with the quieter turbine lets the 6X6 all wheel drive powertrain hum along on a unique independent suspension while the driver enjoys views in the cab forward seat from a panoramic windshield inside the cab.
A plug for battery charging is included, along with 50-kW DC charging, but the company says its generator is cleaner than any wall outlet so no one needs to plug in, while the electric powertrain goes 800-1,200 miles between fills to its CNG tanks. The plug otherwise is a convenience, such as to keep the battery topped off.
Its traction motors both push and pull and even do fancy things like computer-enabled torque vectoring for greater safety and control.
While no “Ludicrous” mode is available, acceleration is twice as quick as a conventional semi, says Nikola, at 0-60 in 30 seconds, instead of one minute. Braking conversely, takes half the distance, or less than 150 feet versus 300 feet via regenerative brakes and also included are redundant DOT-compliant air brakes.
By ditching the giant turbo diesel, even factoring in the 3,000-4,000 pound battery assembly, the vehicle weighs 2,000 pounds less than an average competitor meaning it can haul that much more freight.
“Every pound after max load may be worth as much as $.50. By saving up to 2,000 lbs, owners could earn approximately $1,000 in extra revenue from every load, every day,” says the company.
Where the real savings comes in is in fuel costs and maintenance, says the company.
“An average diesel burns over $400,000 in fuel and racks up over $100,000 in maintenance costs over 1,000,000 miles,” says the company of about a 5-7 year average time span. “These costs are eliminated with the Nikola One lease.”
Because the cab is larger with engine deleted, the real estate is devoted to creature comfort. With motor-home like amenities include a large sleeper cab with mid-side entry, two full-size beds, 42-inch 4k curved screen TV, wifi and 4G LTE Internet, AC power outlets, full-size fridge and freezer, computer desk, and more.
Couple this with the fact that this is anywhere from nicely equipped to a luxury truck, and this could become the new lifestyle statement, and standard making those Peterbuilt and Kenworth and Mack drivers also want in on the new age.
What’s not to like?
Shadows of Doubt
In contacting engineers, a major competitor, and others knowledgeable in the industry, skeptical voices who wished not to be quoted did say so far turbines and natural gas have not been successful to the degree Nikola is suggesting it is about to demonstrate.
One challenge that Nikola faces is developing its own turbine, while bypassing off the shelf manufacturers. It is not using a Wrightspeed unit, though has only positive things to say about that California company.
Another questionable assertion is Nikola’s value proposition statements assume diesel engines are only 20-percent thermally efficient, and Milton contradicted assertions that the SAE says they can be up to 43-percent efficient.
“It depends on how advanced the diesel is. Cost goes up with efficiencies,” said Milton. “Our turbine is about one-quarter the weight of a diesel and outputs more energy more efficiently. There are many ways you can compare and to what engines. Compared to the large class 8 trucks, they are around 20 percent from our history of analysis. Some are greater, but most are not.”
According to the U.S Department of Energy, commercial diesel vehicle engines are 42 percent efficient. And, said Ezra Finkin, director, Policy and External Relations for the Diesel Technology Forum, things are getting better for diesels.
“That number is estimated to rise slightly due to the Phase 1 fuel economy rules. The DoE Super Truck program successfully tested diesel engines that demonstrated 50 percent thermal efficiency,” he said noting thermal efficiency as high as 55 percent is being sought.
That turbines offer advantages is uncontested, however Nikola must overcome technical hurdles to make turbines that will go the one-million-plus miles in a truck promising lower maintenance than a diesel.
“That is part of validation and testing. All are steps that are required to build a truck that will last,” observed Milton. “We are validating every part of the truck for over 2 million miles, not just the turbine. These are normal steps, yet costly. Just part of the process.”
Milton added their turbine is a proprietary design, but denied requests for detailed specifications saying more will be shown Dec. 2, when it is unveiled.
Luxury Truck’s Future
Reports floating out there that the vehicle will be autonomous and able to platoon with up to five vehicles following in close formation are being called rumors and speculation, and not verified by the company.
Milton said the company does now have dealers, but is taking it slow until it’s sure its program has been set up. Meanwhile he said the idea has sparked significant interest.
“Dealers in all 48 lower states have reached out to us,” he said.
For the remaining five months and a few days until a global unveiling, the company is drumming interest in its luxurious truck that’s so nice, people may enjoy its home away from home accommodations as much as driving it.
By deleting the engine, a fair amount of space was opened up and creature comforts are at the top of the priority list.
“We hope to make it very nice inside. Much like a motorhome,” said Milton. “Driver comfort is on the top of our list and regular trucks cannot accommodate that like we can – due to cab size.”
More can be learned at the company website, and we’ll let you know when there’s more to report.