On Super Trucks, Nikola One, and Emissions Tampering

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Navistar unveiled its Catalist SuperTruck on September 28, reporting a 104% improvement in freight efficiency compared to the DOE’s control vehicle, managing a commendable 13 mpg. The truck also demonstrated an impressive 50.5% brake thermal efficiency, and Navistar says it’s on the path towards 55% BTE.

Note that the U.S. Department of Energy program’s goal is a 50% improvement in overall freight efficiency on a class 8 tractor-trailer as measured in ton-miles per gallon of diesel. Compared to a 2009 base model rig, that is. The Catalist exceeded that goal by a pretty big margin.

And now we know a little more about how it was achieved. Much of the improvement came from the slick Wabash trailer. The company says, of its numerous aerodynamic devices, three of them are based on the commercially available Ventix DRS skirt, AeroFin XL tail device, and nose fairing. They reduced the trailer’s drag coefficient by more than 30%, according to Navistar.

Each of the trailer components on the SuperTruck vehicle were designed as concepts of what the next generation of its aerodynamic devices will look like, the company says.

BEYOND THE AERODYNAMIC TRICKERY, Wabash also reduced the trailer’s weight by more than 2000 lb compared to its 2009-model dry van. All components used to reduce weight, like wide-base single tires and a variety of aluminum parts, are commercially available.

According to the DOE’s Office of Science, about 20% of the SuperTruck efficiency improvements come from advances in the truck’s engine, with further  gains attributed to reduced rolling resistance with high-efficiency tires and idle limiters, as well as the aerodynamics and weight reduction.

Some of the technology innovations developed through the program are already being implemented in production vehicles now, says Navistar.

One of them was predictive cruise control, which looks ahead of the vehicle and recognizes terrain, continuously calculating the most efficient speed and gear for better fuel economy in real time.

THE TRACTOR’S AERODYNAMIC DRAG was much reduced through replacement of cab- and hood-mounted mirrors with a series of cameras and interior-mounted monitors, which also yield equal or better indirect vision for the driver. You’d see that solution everywhere already if the law didn’t demand outer mirrors.

There’s also a new LED headlamp system that reduces lamp size for a more aerodynamic shape and cuts electrical power requirements by more than 80%, while improving output and light color for improved night-time vision and reduced driver fatigue.

A hybrid front suspension and a rear suspension that uses lightweight alloys with composite materials reduces weight. It also enables an electronic ride-height management system, which provides dynamic height and pitch control for improved aerodynamics.

Then we have the use of lighter-weight — but expensive — carbon-fiber panels in the upper body, roof headers, back panel, and the dash panel too.

 And besides all that, check out the roof of the trailer in the accompanying photo — a zillion solar panels from eNow to power all manner of onboard gizmos. Solar, it seems to me, has a bright future. And how better to use the trailer’s roof?

BRIDGESTONE IS DEVELOPING NEW tire technologies as part of the SuperTruck II program, the company tells us. The five-year project will be aimed at significantly reducing the environmental impact of heavy-duty long-haul tractor-trailers, with federal funding as a team member of the Cummins/Peterbilt  program. The U.S. DOE will match the Bridgestone investment dollar-for-dollar, to create prototype tires in all three axle positions. It will incorporate six different tire technologies, the company says, including tire sizing, curing, casing construction, casing compounds, tread patterns, and tread compounding.

The prototype tires are expected to deliver up to a 6% improvement in fuel efficiency through a 30% decrease in rolling resistance compared to the 2009-model-year baseline product tires — while meeting or exceeding customer expectations in wear and traction, says Bridgestone. At full implementation of the technology over the U.S. class 8 vehicle population, the company says nearly three billion gallons of diesel could potentially be saved per year.

The SuperTruck II program aims to improve heavy-truck freight efficiency by more than 100%.


AND THE NIKOLA ONE has been formally introduced, speaking of new technologies. I wasn’t there for the launch in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago, but a gala affair it was by all accounts. Members of the press attended in droves, trucking journalists being the minority.

One guy who was there is my colleague Jim Park and so, in the off-chance that you haven’t read about this mighty interesting truck, I’m going to reproduce his report, lightly edited. See it on our website here and look for a larger story in the January issue of Today’s Trucking. Here’s Jim’s take on it…

Nikola founder and CEO Trevor Milton provided details of how the truck’s electric drive system will be powered by a combination of hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and regenerative braking. He said the truck will be in production by 2020, with an expected annual build rate of 50,000 units.

Speculation has been rampant for months on whether the truck and the project itself were the real thing — a truck that will soon be out on the highway hauling freight. While that remains to be seen, the very visible presence of industry giants such as Ryder System, Meritor, and U.S. Express bring more than a little credibility to the Nikola One promise.

Milton, who made his entrance on one of his company’s electric off-road vehicles called the Nikola Zero, opened the presentation with a quote from Oren Harari that he says captures everything he has been trying to explain to people since the beginning of the project:

“The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.”

THAT SAYS IT ALL. The Nikola One is not an upfit or a refit or a hybrid with a bit of this and a bit of that, but a fully electrically powered class 8 highway sleeper truck that is said to be capable of running up to 1900 km on a single fill of the hydrogen fuel-cell system. It has no conventional drivetrain. Instead, each of the six wheel positions has its own independently controlled electric traction motor.

If the Nikola One lives up to the billing, it could totally transform all we think about heavy trucks. It could indeed be a game changer.

Milton said in many cases really big companies are not well positioned to undertake utterly ground-breaking, game-changing projects like this one because of the risk involved.

“If there was a failure, it would affect a company of that size much more than a smaller company like ours,” he said. “One of the great advantages we have as entrepreneurs and one of the tasks in life we have as entrepreneurs is to be able to take risks that no one else thought were possible.”

That risk has been evident in the water-cooler talk that’s been going on for months, with many questioning whether the project was more than a story on a website.

SO, THE NIKOLA ONE BASICS. It uses a fully electric drivetrain powered by high-density lithium batteries. Energy for the batteries is supplied on the go by a proton-exchange-membrane hydrogen fuel cell giving the truck a range of 1200 to 1900 km while delivering over 1000 hp and 2000 lb ft of torque.

“Can you imagine pulling a 6% grade with 80,000 lb at 65 mph?” Milton asked. “You can do that with a Nikola One.”

Milton says the truck will weigh about 2000 lb less than a similar diesel sleeper truck because the traditional powertrain and fuel tanks have been eliminated. The truck displayed at the unveiling weighs about 19,000 lb.

NIKOLA ALSO HAS PLANS for a daycab version as well, dubbed Nikola Two. It will have the same performance attributes and fuel-utilization rates as the sleeper model, but in a smaller, lighter, and less expensive form. As a teaser, Milton offered that the daycab will also be much more manoeuvrable thanks to a unique steerable rear axle.

Because the powertrain is electric, it will produce a lot of its own energy through regenerative braking. It also has disc brakes at all wheel positions. Milton says 85% of the braking energy goes into energy regeneration rather than being wasted as heat. The disc brakes will reportedly have double or triple the life we see today.

“Conventional braking is energy lost to heat,” he notes. “Regenerative braking is energy recovered.”

As well, the stopping ability of the truck is increased exponentially because a brake application is near instantaneous (30 milliseconds) compared to the nearly half second it takes for an ordinary air disc brake to react. That means much shorter stopping distances and more precise control of the vehicle.

Milton said the truck will be more stable than a typical tractor thanks to a center of gravity lowered by 2 to 3 ft. “All the batteries are located in between the frame rails,” he said. “That keeps that great bulk of weight very close to the ground.”

Other safety features of the Nikola One include “Surround Vision” provided by 12 cameras that, through a single screen, provide a 360-degree view of what’s going on around the truck. And entry and egress falls will be minimized by a mid-cab access door that opens into the cab behind the driver’s seat.

THE MATH ON THE ENERGY YIELD of hydrogen compared to diesel is pretty straightforward. A kilogram of H2 has 33.3 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of energy, which when converted to stored electrical energy by the 70%-efficient PEM fuel cell produces 23.3 usable kwh per kilo. With 100 kilos of H2 on board (storage tanks vary in size depending on the application) at a usage rate of 0.58 miles per kwh, the truck will go a calculated 1351 miles (about 2000 km) assuming there are no other inordinate energy demands.

Milton said it works out to 15.4 miles (24.8 km) per diesel gallon equivalent of H2. “That’s more than double the fuel efficiency of today’s diesel powertrains,” Milton explained, noting, “As this truck goes down the road the only thing that will be coming out of it are drips of water.”

The Nikola One business model is almost entirely vertically integrated, right down to the production and distribution of the fuel. Nikola customers will get their hydrogen fuel at no additional cost; it’s built into the lease program, so there are no carrying charges or interest to be paid on fuel bills and no more need for customers to hedge their bets — and their rates — on fuel prices. 

THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS to produce H2. Initial plans call for creating a 100-megawatt solar farm producing electricity for the on-site conversion of water to H2 through electrolysis. Other possible methods include steam reform or gas separation into compressed gas or cryogenic liquid. The fuel in Nikola’s case will be liquefied and transported in cryogenic tankers to fueling stations.

Initial plans call for 364 stations in the U.S. with concentrations that will allow trucks to pass at least seven and up to as many as 25 stations anywhere in the country without having to refill with hydrogen. Construction of the filling stations is set to being in 2019, and will be concentrated in areas where fleets are operating Nikola trucks.

There is currently a per-gallon federal credit to the station owner (Nikola), so Nikola is able to build that into the price of the truck when purchased and can then realize those savings and give customers the pre-purchased fuel for the first million miles.

“That’s the beauty of being vertically integrated,” Milton said. “We own our own hydrogen production facility, our own distribution, and we also own the manufacturing of the truck.”

INITIAL TRUCK PRODUCTION WILL be done by Fitzgerald, a company currently known for building glider kits in the U.S. It’s currently building 6000 to 9000 such trucks a year.

“Fitzgerald will build the first 5000 trucks, and will continue to build trucks for us into the future,” said Milton. “This will allow us to avoid a lot of the initial capital expenditure. It’s not as advanced as a massive manufacturing facility, but once again, we’re doing things a different way.”

He says Nikola will eventually invest up to $1 billion in a manufacturing facility with capacity for up to 50,000 trucks per year. Those plans will proceed once more research and development and testing has been completed. The location of the proposed manufacturing plant will be announced in mid-2017.

MILTON NAMED THREE MAJOR PARTNERS in the Nikola project: Ryder System, Meritor, and automotive and defence engineering company, Pratt and Miller.

“Meritor helped design our fully independent front and rear suspension,” said Milton. “It’s the first ever on a heavy truck. Drivers will be absolutely amazed at how well it rides, and it also allowed us to get rid of the differentials.”

Ryder will be servicing, selling, warranting, and fueling the vehicle at its 800 service centers located throughout the continental United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico.

While Milton did not single out Pratt and Miller for their contribution to the project, the company’s website lists specialties such as suspension, chassis, hybrid/electric propulsion systems, powertrain integration, and more.

Nikola claims to have over $4 billion in pre-orders for the truck, with as many as 7000 units currently at least partially spoken for. If the truck lives up to the advance billing, it may in fact be the first word in the rest of the story of trucking.


EMISSIONS TAMPERING MUST END, says the Canadian Trucking Alliance. It appeared last week before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, calling on the federal government to broaden its oversight powers under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) similar to those contained in the U.S. Clean Air Act to prevent tampering of mandatory emission control devices on heavy trucks.

Precise figures are obviously unavailable but I’ve heard it said that as many as 80% of trucks working in the Alberta and Saskatchewan oilfields run without emission controls. The modification, though not especially cheap, is readily available and is said to pay for itself in fairly short order. Given the low-speed kind of work involved here, that’s easy to understand.

“In the U.S. there are significant fines and legal consequences for the manufactures, sellers and installers of aftermarket devices and services designed to circumvent emission controls,” CTA senior vice president Steve Laskowski explained to the committee. “In Canada no such powers exist under CEPA after the vehicle is sold to the consumer. This fact – coupled with spotty or non-existent provincial regulations and enforcement to prevent sales and installation of emissions control defeat devices – means that we now find ourselves in a situation where harmful environmental and unfair business practices are allowed to continue, unchecked. This needs to be corrected.”

CTA’s submission outlined how the vast majority of the trucking industry complies with the environmental rules on equipment. While making no excuses for carriers who attempt to defeat or bypass the emissions control system, CTA’s submission also highlighted the industry’s frustration over the negative impact that emissions devices have had on equipment reliability and on driver well-being. CTA highlighted that volatile engine performance forced many fleets to add up to 20% more trucks to their fleet than was required, just to cover for vehicles put out of service.

“Governments need to play a stronger role in not only cracking down on the tampering market, but also reducing demand for that market by correcting the reliability factor and offering carriers some recourse when new equipment doesn’t work properly” said Laskowski.

CTA’s recommendations, slightly abbreviated, go like this:

(1)  That CEPA be amended to allow the Canadian federal government to enforce the same or similar penalties administered under the Clean Air Act for engine tampering.

(2)  Although it’s not ultimately the decision of the Government of Canada, that Transport Canada and Environment Canada assist CTA in championing for a tampering inspection that specifically looks for evidence of the EGR/DPF delete.

(3)   Environment Canada must begin working with Transport Canada to establish testing protocols for emission-reduction qualifying technology and supporting wiring systems.

(4)  In June 2015, the Government of Canada introduced the Safer Vehicles for Canadians Act. The bill proposes new powers that would allow the Minister of Transport to order a company to issue a recall and require manufacturers to fix defective or non-compliant vehicles. The Minister could also order manufacturers or importers to pay for repairs and ensure new vehicles perform reliably before they are sold to the public.

(5) CTA supports a modified form of ‘limp mode’ technology. CTA urges the time/range of the limp mode function be extended so that drivers can reach a safe, cost-effective location to have the component repaired, if required, or sensor reset.


THIS NEWSLETTER IS PUBLISHED every two weeks. For the most part it’s a heads-up notice about what’s going on with trucking technology. I also write here about interesting products that may not have had the ‘air play’ they deserved within the last few months, and maybe about issues that warrant attention in my occasionally humble opinion.

I should remind you that, with the odd exception, I don’t endorse any of the products I write about in this e-newsletter, nor do I have the resources to test them except on rare occasions. What you’re getting is reasonably well educated opinion based on more than 37 years in trucking.

If you have comments of whatever sort about The Lockwood Report, or maybe you’ve tried a gizmo I should know about, please contact me at rolf@newcom.ca




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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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