Trucking start-up Nikola Motor Co. is tweaking the design and functionality of its hydrogen fuel cell-powered semi, making the innovative vehicle more autonomous, lightweight and accessible.
The Salt Lake City-based company is also planning to move its operations to a massive new, high-tech facility and finalize land rights on the first eight of 376 nationwide fueling stations.
Founder Trevor Milton told Trucks.com that Nikola has added roughly a dozen new employees since unveiling its prototype Nikola One vehicle at his headquarters in December.
Although much of the development work on the truck — a Class 8 electric hydrogen hybrid with a 300kW fuel cell and a 320kWh battery bank — is being outsourced to keep the core Nikola team nimble, Milton said he planned to triple the total headcount to more than 100 employees in the next four months.
The team is working on streamlining the Nikola One, shaving off weight so that it’s ultimately 2,000 pounds lighter than a comparable diesel truck.
“In the trucking world, that’s like the holy grail,” Milton said. “We’ve spent a lot of money and time — the last seven months — on carbon fiber engineering, running a lot of simulation models.”
The front of the truck is now wider than on the prototype model to give drivers more room inside. There are two doors instead of one so that truckers can enter from either side. Full redundancy allows for driverless operation, so that for each system working in autonomous mode — steering, electrical and more — there’s a backup manual system.
“There’s full compatibility coming off the assembly line — others are only retrofitting their equipment,” Milton said of the truck’s autonomous capability.
Nikola’s ambitious plans have generated interest from “really good industry partners and financial investors,” in a $110-million funding round which was oversubscribed and is expected to close soon, Milton said. The financing puts Nikola’s total valuation at north of one billion dollars, he said.
This would place Nikola in the unicorn start-up club, which features companies with valuations above $1 billion. Current members include online glasses retailer Warby Parker at $1.2 billion, buzzy fitness provider Peloton Interactive at $1.3 billion and consumer technology maker Jawbone at $1.5 billion, according to venture capital database CB Insights.
Milton stayed mum on his clientele, saying he’ll name names in the next two months. But he did say that, as a result of the unveiling, Nikola took in more than 8,000 reservations for the Nikola One — so many that the company put official ordering on hold.
Ordering process will be handed over in January to fleet management firm Ryder System Inc., which will use its more than 800 service locations in the U.S. and Mexico to distribute and maintain the Nikola One.
Caterpillar dealer Thompson Machinery will supplement Ryder services in Tennessee and Mississippi.
“We couldn’t handle the email increase and all the support questions, so we put a pause on everything,” he said. “But we have verbal commitments for more than 25,000 trucks from customers who are waiting to actually place orders.”
Currently, the Nikola One is undergoing bench testing in controlled environments. But Milton hopes to have the permits to head into live stress testing by mid-2018, followed by three years of extreme winter and summer tests.
And by the end of next year, Nikola One will be made available to fleets to be tested on runs between cities, up steep inclines, through rotten weather and in other challenging conditions, Milton said.
The Fitzgerald Gliders family in Tennessee will produce the first 5,000 trucks, with limited production slated for October 2020 and full production scheduled for 2021. Milton said a new, 1.5-million-square-foot robotic manufacturing facility will be announced in the next two months, requiring the entire company to relocate.
Pricing details will likely be locked in with Ryder by the end of the year and announced in early 2018, Milton said. Nikola is considering a price-per-mile system that puts operating costs at a 20-percent to 30-percent discount compared with an equivalent diesel vehicle, he said.
“There are lots of variables with pricing,” he said. “But we want the operator to get their return on investment on Day One by only getting billed per mile.”
The first eight of 376 fueling stations will be announced in the next two months, Milton said. The stations will all pump out 12,500 kilograms of hydrogen per day, making each the largest station of its kind in the world.
Nikola’s endeavor — a sprawling fueling infrastructure, a zero-emissions commercial truck — involves formidable challenges. But the company also faces growing competition from traditional auto and truck companies.
In April, Toyota Motor Co. revealed its secretive “Project Portal” prototype truck. The Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell drayage truck is being designed for heavy-duty hauling at global ports.
In May, at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., truck builder Kenworth said it planned to launch a Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell drayage truck by the end of this year.
Milton also addressed Tesla Inc.’s plans to unveil an electric semi-truck in September, stressing the advantage of Nikola’s battery and hydrogen hybrid over Tesla’s pure battery model. Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk teased an image of the vehicle during an April TED talk.
“This is the big one people are asking a lot of questions about,” Milton said. “Our range is 800-plus miles, while theirs is 200 to 300. And ours requires a 15-minute fill-up time, while theirs needs a four- to eight-hour charge or a battery swap every 200 to 300 miles.”
Nikola’s truck will be able to handle travel in ports, long-haul environments and inner cities, while Tesla’s is designed only to handle port transit, Milton said.
The zero-emissions Nikola One is being developed in uncertain times for greenhouse gas regulation. In late May, President Trump moved to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, under which the country promised to slash its emissions up to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.
The decision led Musk to quit Trump’s economic advisory council, tweeting that “climate change is real.”
In March, Trump announced that he was ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to review fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks — a step that many environmentalists fear is a precursor to action against commercial trucking efficiency mandates.
But Milton said that Nikola is charging ahead as planned, especially because less-stringent regulations could help young companies like his ease into production.
“Regardless of what the administration does, the fleets seem pretty committed to zero emissions — they all want to save money,” he said. “We believe that diesels are a dying breed, and that in 10 years, you won’t be able to buy a diesel truck anymore.”