The centerpiece of Nikola Motor Co.’s ambitious vision of zero-emission trucking is its Nikola One all-electric semi-truck, but the key is the nationwide support infrastructure that the Salt Lake City start-up plans to build around the sleek new vehicle.
The electric semi-truck, unveiled last week, relies largely on an uncommon power source: a hydrogen fuel cell bolstered by lithium-ion batteries. To sustain the vehicle through cross-country treks, drivers need access to fueling stations along the way.
But fuel cell technology has never been attempted at such a long-haul scale. No such nationwide matrix of stations exists. If successfully implemented, it could be a game-changer for a clean-freight future.
“I don’t doubt the technology for the truck itself — that’s pretty straightforward, and it’s been used for quite a while in other vehicles,” said Antti Lindstrom, a truck market analyst with IHS Markit. “But success is going to hinge on scaling that and creating a distribution network. It’s a do-or-die situation there.”
Hydrogen fuel cells are a no-combustion technology that require a constant source of fuel and oxygen to create electricity and emit only water.
Since the concept first emerged in the 1800s, fuel cells have helped provide energy to laptops, generators and even NASA equipment. As a component in vehicles, they’re attracting more interest.
This fall, General Motors and the U.S. Army unveiled the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, an off-road vehicle running on a hydrogen fuel cell. In 2014, Hyundai launched its commercial crossover Tucson compact SUV with a fuel cell while Toyota debuted its fuel cell Mirai sedan.
At warehouses across North America, Walmart uses thousands of forklifts equipped with GenDrive fuel cells from Plug Power. Last year, the California Energy Commission approved $2.4 million in grants to go toward freight-size hybrid fuel cell trucks to transport cargo at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. Loop Energy will start offering fuel cells as range extenders for heavy-duty electric transport vehicles next year.
For truckers, electric vehicles will make up just 1 percent of the market by 2020, rising to 10 percent a decade later, according to IHS Markit.
Technically, the Nikola One will be a hybrid — using a 300-kilowatt fuel cell as well as a 320-kilowatt-hour battery bank on board that will provide an energy buffer and help propel the vehicle during high torque and hill climbs. (A kilowatt measures the rate at which the fuel cell produces energy at any given time. A kilowatt-hour is a gauge of how much electricity the battery consumes in a given hour.)
Nikola Motor’s plan “would certainly be the biggest deployment of the fuel cell technology” to date, said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The technology is “very appealing” to Andrew Mitchell, chief executive of an entirely emissions-free courier freight and third-party logistics service in British Columbia.
“This is very exciting because it opens up a whole new marketplace, reaching across the country and even the entire continent if the clients need it,” he said at the Nikola One launch event. “The only time we grow our business is when new technology becomes available.”
A Nikola One would help his company — Geazone Eco-Courier of Victoria — diversify, Mitchell said. Currently, the fleet includes five Nissan Leafs, two Smith Electric 5-ton trucks, two electric cargo tricycles and a BYD electric semi-truck arriving in January.
“It’s going to take a number of years to integrate, but I’m all for it,” he said of fuel cell technology.
But for the Nikola One to work, it needs a vast network of hydrogen fueling stations — infrastructure that at the moment is essentially nonexistent.
The U.S. Department of Energy counts only 50 retail hydrogen fueling locations by the end of the year, with most in California and focused on passenger vehicles. Meanwhile, there are more than 1,000 natural gas stations nationwide.
Nikola plans to build hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations around North America over the next few years — the first will begin construction in early 2018 — while also launching facilities to produce the hydrogen that will be sold. The fueling stations will also be accessible to passenger cars.
“It’s critical that they get this going,” Lindstrom said. “If they don’t get that step in, there’s very little hope of a truck using hydrogen becoming a commercial reality.”
It is following in the footsteps of Tesla Motors. The electric car company has built its own nationwide charging network of 700 Supercharger stations for its customers.
But Nikola will likely encounter hurdles as it works to finance and permit the stations. Much of the freight industry in the U.S. is perfectly satisfied with the existing diesel infrastructure. The country’s sprawling geography complicates the planning process.
Building a network of stations in Europe, which is much more compact and open-minded about alternative fuels, would be easier, analysts said.
Nikola, though, wants to win over North American customers. Its fuel dispensers, designed by Bennett Pump Company in Michigan, will be “something that looks, feels and functions like the traditional fueling dispensers we use every day,” said Bennett Senior Vice President James Collier.
There’s much to recommend fuel cells for heavy trucks. Lindstrom calls the technology the “ultimate goal” compared with “intermediate solutions” like natural gas, which he said “is more a step in between diesel and something cleaner.”
And although battery-electric vehicles have been around longer than their fuel cell brethren, they offer less range. Fueling often takes hours for a battery-electric rather than minutes for a fuel cell, according to a report from Navigant Research.
Trevor Milton, founder and chief executive of Nikola Motor, originally planned to use a natural gas turbine to power the Nikola One but decided instead to go with the quieter, emissions-free fuel cell. The technology required less case-by-case calibration for a nearly identical production cost, he said.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” he said.
Fuel cells are lighter than batteries and diesel engines — a key feature for big rigs whose weight is often blamed for ruining roads. The devices give truck designers more flexibility, allowing them to situate the lighter drivetrain behind the driver instead of in front, Cooke said.
“It makes the vehicle more aerodynamic; gives it that ideal bullet shape,” he said.
But long-haul trucking “seems like a surprising, maybe not the most appropriate application” for hydrogen fuel cells in part because of their added expense over diesel technology, said Lisa Jerram, a Navigant analyst.
“As a long-term play, it makes sense for companies in the trucking space to be looking at alternatives, but my sense is that we’re pretty far off from this kind of fuel cell technology as something you’ll really see a lot of,” Jerram said.
Nikola is trying to make an economic case for its trucking system by offering lease customers unlimited fuel. But many unknowns remain.
“It’s complicated — we just don’t know how hydrogen prices look like really because there isn’t enough of an infrastructure,” Cooke said. “It’s tough to extrapolate what the dollar-per-mile cost really is.”
Cost aside, some customers will be compelled to consider fuel cell vehicles and other alternative energy options simply because government regulators are starting to demand it.
Heavy-duty rigs make up between 7 and 10 percent of vehicles on the road but consume more than 25 percent of the fuel, Cooke said. New Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a host of state and local rules, are attempting to chip away at the dominance of fossil fuels in trucking.
Many manufacturers see a market opportunity. Nikola may be unique in going the fuel cell route, but it still must compete against larger rivals such as Daimler, Mack, BYD and Tesla, all of which plan to develop electric trucks.
“Reducing impacts of these vehicles’ fossil fuel use — especially as the freight sector continues to grow as the economy grows — becomes more important and more of a challenge,” Cooke said. “Finding sustainable pathways is critical.”