Startup electric truck maker Nikola Motor Co. says its upcoming Nikola One big rig will be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell – a sudden switch from earlier plans to build a truck that would use a natural gas-fueled turbine to generate electricity off the drive system.

The change is part of a new plan announced by the Salt Lake City company Tuesday to develop a freight system that is completely emissions free, down to the source of the energy powering the vehicle’s drivetrain.

Nikola – named for visionary inventor Nikola Tesla – wants to be the first company to be “100% emission-free from energy production to transportation to consumption,” said Trevor Milton, the company's chief executive.

All Class 8 trucks made by the company for the U.S. and Canada will run on custom-made hydrogen-electric 800V fuel cells, allowing the vehicles to roam more than 1,200 miles between fill-ups, the company said.

As part of its vertically integrated model, the company said it intends to build solar hydrogen farms. Each will use electrolysis to create hydrogen from water and produce more than 100 megawatts of power.

But Milton is providing only the briefest details of his plan and didn’t say how the company would fund development of the truck or the solar facilities.

Milton said that emission-free energy will be funneled in part to Nikola’s manufacturing facilities, as well as 56 planned hydrogen stations situated around North America.

The goal is for the initial batch of stations — including three in California, four in Texas and one in New York — to be ready for Nikola customers to begin fueling by 2020, with hundreds more launching later.

When asked how many of the stations have begun construction or been permitted, Milton told Trucks.com that Nikola is “just beginning this process.” But “most all of them” will be operational by the time the trucks come off the production line in roughly three years, he said.

For months, Milton has promised trucks that would operate as electric-natural gas hybrids, relying on natural gas in a tank to fuel a turbine, which in turn would power the electric motor.

But on Tuesday, Milton said the hydrogen-powered version would reach production first. Its emissions-free nature exempts it from “difficult” emissions testing, he said.

The turbine-equipped model will be developed later but will not be available in the U.S. or Canada. Both types of trucks will use identical drivetrains, batteries and motors, Milton said.

The switch to fuel cells has left some experts skeptical. The most successful tests of zero-emission trucks to date have involved limited distances — drayage vehicles traveling a few dozen miles a day — as opposed to bulky tractor-trailers on cross-country trips, they said.

Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president of clean transportation industry group Calstart, is generally a proponent of innovation such as efforts to extend electric vehicle range by pairing battery power with on-board generation for shorter trips.

“Lots of folks are looking at fuel cells as range extenders in transit buses, for example,” he said. “But a long-haul truck with a fuel cell in 2019 seems like a bridge too far.”

Nikola faces significant technological hurdles building such a truck to tackle cross-country trips, Van Amburg said.

“We want to see them succeed, but it might be too much too fast,” he said.

Still, he thinks Nikola’s aerodynamic design is “intriguing.”

Others see potential in Nikola's plans.

“In concept, a hydrogen-powered truck is not completely far-fetched,” said Don Anair, research and deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s actually one of the more likely ways to address the challenges facing long-range trucks.”

Relying on hydrogen means faster fueling without the need for a massive battery on board, he said. But Anair questions Nikola’s claim that its truck will be able to travel 1,200 miles without stopping at a hydrogen station, noting that the truck would likely have to store a large quantity of the fuel on board.

“I’m trying not to totally dismiss the idea — If they can pull it off, it’d be really impressive,” he said. “But there are many challenges that I’d be interested to see them try to overcome.”

Nikola One Electric Startup Truck Rendering

Nikola One Electric Truck Rendering

The Nikola One will be unveiled Dec. 1 in Salt Lake City. The company, which hopes to have a commercial vehicle on the road sometime in 2019, claims to have collected pre-orders that if fulfilled would be worth $3 billion since it began taking reservations in May.

Among the electric rig’s benefits, according to Nikola: more power than any diesel truck built for the road, the capacity of nearly 20 miles per gallon with a full load and one million miles of free hydrogen provided by the company.

The truck will satisfy government fuel efficiency mandates – including the recently issued Phase 2 rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation – for the next decade, the company said.

Nikola is operating in an increasingly crowded market. Several major trucking companies — including Daimler, Mack and BYD — all announced plans this summer to develop heavy-duty electric vehicles.

Tesla Motors, an electric vehicle company that shares a namesake with Milton’s company, said last month that it plans to unveil its electric Tesla Semi next year.

Soon after, Tesla inked a deal to buy clean energy company SolarCity, noting in a blog post that the acquisition would create “the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers.”

For now, zero-emission trucking is a tiny piece of the freight industry. But diesel trucks are a major source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the U.S. Increasingly stringent state and federal regulations designed to reduce greenhouse emissions and other pollution from freight transport are expected to bolster the market for green trucks.

More companies are looking into electric rigs. Some see it as a way to build credibility with environmentalists while others believe clean energy will prove the more cost-effective option in the long run. Most new entrants, however, are being pressured by regulations such as Phase 2.

Other companies are experimenting with hydrogen — California firm TransPower now offers a hydrogen fuel cell that helps augment the range of its battery packs for electric trucks. General Motors and the U.S. Army announced Tuesday that they have collaborated to build a Chevrolet Colorado that uses hydrogen to power its mid-size pickup truck.

But hydrogen-based trucking faces many of the same concerns that once bedeviled natural gas and battery electric rigs.

The fueling network is a key issue. Retail hydrogen fuel locations are expanding across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But the government expects only 50 such stations to exist by year-end, with most concentrated in California and directed at passenger vehicles.

“There is no industry for hydrogen in long-haul trucking yet. Zero,” Van Amburg said.

By contrast, there are some 1,000 natural gas stations sprinkled in corridors around the country, according to Anair. Tesla alone has nearly 700 Supercharger stations set up nationwide to power its electric Model S and X cars.

“The more traditional route with alternative-fueled trucks has focused on shorter-range infrastructure that involves captive fleets that go out during the day and come back to the same location,” Anair said. “Nikola is focused on the long-haul applications – one of the most challenging segments to deploy zero-emissions technology.”