Nikola Motor Plans Fuel Cell Lab, Predicts Diesel’s Demise

March 29, 2019 by John O'Dell

Predicting the demise of the diesel engine for trucking, fuel cell truck developer Nikola Motor plans to build what it calls a  “world class” development lab.

The fuel cell electric powertrain will “replace the diesel engine in the next ten years,” said Mark Russell, Nikola’s president.

With its lab, the company is aiming to be able to develop fuel cell components twice as fast as others in the trucking industry.

“This laboratory is intended to be the most advanced fuel cell research and development facility in the world,” Russell said.

Nikola already has ordered for $16 million of equipment for the fuel cell lab. Development plans call for a total investment of several hundred million dollars, the company said.

“The new facility will enable Nikola to develop, validate and test its entire fuel cell system, including membrane electrode assemblies, stampings, stacks, and power electronics,” Russell said.

But Nikola already has some stiff competition. Toyota Motors Co. has its own world class fuel cell lab up and running and it sells the fuel cell powered Mirai car in Japan and California.

While Toyota isn’t in the heavy truck business, it does build fuel cell buses and is testing a fuel cell system for heavy trucks.

Rival Trucks

Nikola’s claim for its yet-to-be built facility is a “bold proclamation, considering they don’t know anything about our top secret activities,” said Brian Lyons, a spokesman for Toyota’s Advanced Technology unit.

“We’ve been working on fuel cells for over two decades,” he said. Toyota recently announced a production target of 30,000 fuel cell stacks per year by 2020.

Even with competition from Toyota, Nikola is making an important strategic move. Fuel cells are the critical component of Nikola’s truck and the centerpiece of its business model, said Antti Lindstrom, a trucking industry analyst with IHS Markit.

Building its own lab allows the company “to control to process from beginning to end,” Lindstrom said.

Without its own development facility, Nikola “would be just another consolidator, at the mercy of what it could buy from others,” Lindstrom said.

Other trucking industry OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers, are working on fuel cell technology, but most see fuel cell systems as a future powertrain option for their customers, not as a near-term replacement for the diesel engine. Based on its partnership with Kenworth, Toyota appears to be looking at becoming a fuel cell powertrain supplier to truck builders rather than a competitor with its own line of trucks.

But diesel engine technology has legs for the long run, said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry trade group.

“Plans, promises and predictions are one thing but the only thing that matters to trucking is delivery.  The newest generation of advanced diesel technology is delivering – it now is found under the hood of over 36 percent of all commercial trucks on the road today in the U.S.,” Schaeffer said.

“It would be a mistake to assume that diesel technology is not continuing to improve its efficiency and emissions,” he said.

Fuel alternatives like hydrogen will have to compete with increasingly clean diesel engines, Schaeffer said.

In-House Capability

Building its own in-house capability would allow Nikola to produce components at a lower cost, Lindstrom said. That’s because If full cell technology gains widespread acceptance, the makers of components for the technology will charge hefty prices, he said.

Fuel cell powertrains are electric. But while conventional battery-electric powertrains have range limitations and lengthy recharging times, fuel cell systems produce power for their electric motors from compressed hydrogen gas. The gas is stored in on-board tanks that can be refilled at hydrogen stations – most are still in the planning stages –  as quickly as a conventional diesel truck can be refueled at a truck stop.

Nikola already has launched its own trucks and is presently in the fleet testing stage, with commercial production slated to begin in late 2022 at a plant it is building in Arizona, where it is headquartered.

Trevor Milton, Nikola’s chief executive and founder, has said that other truck builders have inquired about acquiring Nikola powertrains for their vehicles. The company will “make them available to other OEMs who share our vision,”  he said.

While he considers fuel cell electric powertrains will become the first choice for long haul trucks, Milton has said Nikola also will build battery-electric versions of several of its trucks for clients who prefer that shorter-range technology.

Nikola has raised about $300 million in capital and has non-binding advance orders for about 14,000 of its Class 8 day- and sleeper-cab trucks. The largest announced order is from brewing giant Anheuser-Busch for 800 trucks.

Nikola hydrogen truck

Nikola Motor has an order for 800 trucks from Anheuser-Busch. (Photo: Nikola Motor)

Milton established Nikola in Utah in 2012 and relocated to Arizona last year.

The company plans to show off its products and plans – including more detail about its fuel cell lab – in Phoenix in April at a “Nikola World” event that will be the first in a series of technology showcases.

Milton told Trucks.com that representatives of more than 500 commercial trucking have registered for the April 16-17 event, and that more than 5,000 people are expected to attend.

John O'Dell February 18, 2019
Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton talks about the company’s investors, the war of words with Elon Musk and Nikola’s future in a candid Trucks.com interview.

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