SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Nikola Motor Co. has shown artist renderings of its revolutionary cabover for months at its website Nikola.com, but on Dec. 1 company founder and CEO Trevor Milton pulled the wraps of the real thing – an all independent-suspension electric-drive cabover using current generated by a hydrogen fuel cell. And the only emissions from this high-performance heavy truck tractor is a little water.
Water is the by-product from the power generated by combining the hydrogen with oxygen in the air, in the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell that is directly charging the lithium-ion storage batteries.
The all-independent suspension truck is revolutionary. Yet that is only part of the story that unfolded recently at the Nikola reveal in Salt Lake City.
There is a burgeoning but patchy hydrogen fuel infrastructure in the US but Milton has a bigger vision for trucking. Hydrogen will be dispensed at 364 Nikola fuel station/truck stops, which are to be built concurrently with the start-up of production of the Nikola One over-the-road tractor. This will give the upcoming Nikola customers an assured and stable price for the fuel, said Milton, of his visionary plan. The plan also calls for sales of hydrogen fuel to owners of the new Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai ix35, for instance, which will help make such cars viable for long distance and cross-country use while improving the business model for Nikola. For them, the hydrogen will equate to around US$1.50 (per diesel gallon equivalent) said Milton. For Nikola One truckers, the cost will be zero.
One of the highly attractive parts of Milton’s Nikola vision is customers will pay nothing at the pump. The plan is to offer the trucks on a six-year lease that folds in all maintenance, service and consumables like tires, windshield wipers and even fuel for one million miles. The cost of that lease will be finalized in the two-plus years before the truck reaches the market, but Milton says he is shooting for a lease between US$5,000 and $7,000 per month.
According to guests – hundreds of owner-operators and small fleets – at the Salt Lake City launch, this could work well. Many have demonstrated their faith by ponying up a US$1,500 deposit for early production slots. At the reveal, one said the economics will prove a winning investment especially for teams because they can get more revenue miles per month.
One of these, though hardly a small fleet operator, was Max Fuller, chairman and founder of one of the nation’s largest trucking fleets. He has pre-ordered so many that his company name – US Xpress – was emblazoned on the Nikola One at the reveal. He said that he was particularly excited by the truck in its first iteration, though things will have to change some to fit in with practical operations. But in a video, he said that he has been more than a few times to the Nikola headquarters to offer his opinions on what real-world conditions dictate.
US Xpress is an over-the-road fleet with team drivers and such team operations are targets of the Nikola One concept. By moving the driver forward to the position previously occupied by the engine, there’s an available 30% more living space for a mini-apartment sized sleeper. Add to that the on-board availability of electric power and the promised extreme comfort from the ultra-rigid frame and independent long-travel suspension, and Nikola drivers will likely be the most professional in a fleet or the most successful small fleet owner-operators.
An integral part of marketing a truck is on-road service. Nikola’s Milton has pulled off a coup, right in line with his total trucking vision, by partnering with Ryder System, the leasing giant that has more than 800 service locations in the US, Canada and parts of Mexico. Additional support will be provided in Tennessee and Mississippi – service areas of responsibility (AORs) for Caterpillar dealer Thompson Machinery, an early investor in Nikola. Ryder’s Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer, said Ryder’s sales force at the facilities will handle customer enquiries and its 5,300 technicians will be trained to service the new-age trucks.
Perry said Ryder is no stranger to new technologies, having embraced natural gas fuel over the last six years in both owning trucks on behalf of its customers, in acquiring vehicles for lease, service and fueling. To add Nikola, the company has to provide training in handling the hydrogen fuel and understanding the unique 800-volt drivetrain.
But there’s not a lot of service for the electric Nikola, said Milton. Benefits of the electric drive system include far fewer components in the propulsion and chassis system and a major lowering of the preventive maintenance requirement.
Under the Nikola One
The next presenter at the technical break-outs was Dave Damion, Meritor’s sales and business director for development for defense and special products. And it comes as no surprise that the Nikola chassis owes much to state-of-the art military vehicle design.
Meritor was chosen to partner on the Nikola design and development for its experience in military vehicle suspensions and was given a free hand in developing the revolutionary Nikola setup. Most significantly, the suspension is based on the best military practice of long travel, independent air-ride suspensions.
The Nikola is thus endowed with the same robustness and a design that puts load paths to and from suspension and fifth wheel directly into the structure of the truck. An example is the fifth wheel mounted directly onto the tandem air bags, involving no bending loads into the frame imposed by conventional chassis designs. The frame itself is far stiffer than a conventional truck’s, because of the long-travel integrated air and shock absorber and long and short arm double wishbone suspension at all wheel positions. The ride and handling is promised to be exceptional, contributing to driver comfort and control and lowering the fatigue associated with driving a truck over extended periods.
The double-wishbone setup mounts to frame and to frame-mounted two-speed motor gearboxes for the three driving axles – all wheel positions are driven on the prototype. These are massive on the prototype Nikola, containing individual two-speed gear sets and an electric motor for each wheel. Driveshafts are constant velocity jointed at each end but, because there are motors for each wheel-end, there are no differentials. So, vibration is reduced and gear mesh power losses are eliminated. The prototype features Michelin One ultra wide-base singles, but duals can be accommodated because the geometry of the wishbone suspension maintains equal road pressure across the dual tires as the suspension articulates.
Air disc brakes are featured because an air-braked system is required by regulation on heavy commercial vehicles. Accessories such as air-conditioning compressor, coolant and pressure pumps are electric. Hydraulics are essentially eliminated by electromechanical components like the electric power steering.
Under the hood
So far, no real detail has been offered about the propulsion system other than the fuel cell in the latest iteration of the Nikola is a PEM, which is a robust and fast-evolving technology. Interestingly, Toyota has recently announced it is looking at similar fuel cell technology for heavy trucks.
The decision to go with the zero-emissions fuel cell system was made only recently, switching away from the original concept of a high-speed natural gas turbine to demand-charge the Li-ion batteries. However, Milton says that the basic electric powertrain is common and the fact that the chassis has been packaged for both turbine and fuel cell means that in markets where there is a less robust hydrogen fuel infrastructure, the Nikola can be made available with the turbine battery charging.
The fuel cell has major advantages where it can be used. Because there is significantly less heat rejection, some of the coolant radiators can be reduced in size or removed, reducing complexity and weight. Other weight savings come from dispensing with diesel engine, emissions aftertreatment systems, transmission, prop shaft and differentials. Spec’ for spec’, a Nikola will be around 2,000 lbs lighter than a diesel truck, said Milton. He said the prototype on show scaled 19,000 lbs even with the first-generation motor gearboxes and apartment-sized appliances in the sleeper.
Whether the fuel cell or turbine, something like 300-400 kW feeds the Nikola-patented battery pack mounted between the frame rails beneath the sleeper compartment. This battery pack is unique in its cell cooling, which maintains temperatures within two degrees. This ensures good charge density and longer battery life. Using this powertrain in a truck is far easier than a passenger car, said Milton, since a truck offers significantly greater flexibility and space to accommodate a heavy battery pack. The battery pack is sized to contain a maximum 320 kW-hr charge (Milton compared this to the biggest Tesla pack at 100 kW-hr). Having such a large capacity allows for reserve power for hill climbing.
The powertrain controller is fed with predictive cruise information, so it maintains the best charge associated with upcoming terrain. If there is a grade imminent, charge increases: a downhill sees the state of charge at a minimum so the batteries get recharged by regenerative braking going down the grade, incidentally taking all retarding effort away from the service brakes at the wheels.
The rated power for the battery/drive package is 1,000 hp and 2,000 lb.-ft. of torque. This is around two or three times the horsepower of a diesel and results in the Nikola being able to climb a 6% grade at 65 mph. The torque is as much as the biggest 16-liter diesels produce but because the motor response is far faster than a diesel’s and peak torque is when the electric motor is stalled, the truck accelerates very quickly. Milton says drivers will really enjoy the performance. And they’ll also appreciate the shorter trip times that will put more money in their pockets, he said.
The Nikola puts safety in the forefront with stability control, accident avoidance on-board, infrastructure connectivity and personal safety all wrapped into the package. Enablers are the vector torque at the drive wheels, anti-lock braking, all-electric power steering and a 12-camera viewing system all around the truck. This means lane keeping, automated braking, predictive and adaptive cruise control are all baked in. And with those features enabled, autonomous driving is another feature that is part of the Nikola vision of the future.
Because of the faster acting and more powerful braking system, Milton sees the truck as a prime contender for ultra-close platooning. The electric drivetrain makes for a much better connected vehicle, he says.
An interesting deliverable from the surround camera system is the personal safety aspect it delivers. Milton says many women drivers are reluctant to park in truck stops and are concerned about what is around them should they have to leave the vehicle. With the Nikola visibility, a driver can even view on his or her cellphone what is outside the truck. If necessary, the system can actually produce video of any suspicious behavior around the vehicle.
A further component of the holistic package is the connectivity of the truck, the driver displays and a freight matching service that will be integrated into the Nikola as standard. The service will make it easier for individuals to find freight and increase revenue by as much as 50%.
Called Nikola Shipments, it is effectively an on-board loadboard through which brokers around North America can post freight onto the Nikola service; an individual driver can choose where he wants to go, then match freight to the route. This offers the owner-operator or small fleet the opportunity to consolidate less-than-truckload shipments right on the truck.
Along with the additional cargo weight and the fuel economy, Milton is looking to change the freight efficiency paradigm and make trucking more rewarding and less stressful for those participating.
It will take time to roll out, but it is an example of the way Milton, through Nikola, wants to change the face of trucking and put drivers back in the driving seat where they can control their fate, not just the truck.