The Nikola Motor Company kind of appeared out of nowhere in 2016 with a grand plan for futuristic hydrogen-electric big rigs trucks for hauling. We still haven’t seen these vehicles on the road en masse, and this week the company expanded on its schemes with a new truck, a UTV, a military combat vehicle and a Jet Ski-style watercraft. It’s nothing if not ambitious.
Part of me feels like the flamboyance of this week’s event, at which Nikola trotted out executives and adjacent spokespeople, along with some extremely cool examples of the alternative-energy vehicles it claims are coming soon, is a bit of a red flag.
From my perspective watching via livestream, “Nikola World 2019” had the pompousness of a corporate Coachella hosted by a bluechip juggernaut like Apple or Disney, but that felt a little weird considering the fact that Nikola hasn’t exactly made itself a household name... or delivered any visible products yet.
In fact, as tech writer Mark Harris pointed out, the company itself has barely started doing real-world road testing:
That doesn’t mean the Nikola’s not doing work, though. As commercial trucking writer Jason Cannon has said, Nikola has been upfront about the prototype status of its vehicles.
The pace the company is at, from public debut to driving on public roads, still seems to be reasonable considering the fact that Nikola is trying to build an entirely new platform from scratch.
And look, there’s at least one working one already:
I am still having a little trouble wrapping my head around the fact that Nikola is simultaneously developing three wildly different types of vehicles. But! I also think it’s on to something there. In spite of, or along with, my skepticism about Nikola, there are three major factors I really like about this company:
- It seems to understand the importance of developing an infrastructure in parallel with something as revolutionary as a line of hydrogen-electric semi-trucks.
- It’s leveraging partnerships within the transportation industry to counteract the disadvantage of being an unknown brand.
- It’s focusing on exactly the types of vehicles that are well suited for EV and hydro adoption, and ones that are easier to build than passenger cars.
Let’s look at those bullet points at little more closely:
A zero-emissions commercial truck is useless if it can’t easily be refueled. So if you’re going to introduce a new propulsion platform for big rigs, developing a network of fueling stations truckers can consistently rely on is just as important as the trucks themselves.
Nikola has acknowledged this from the onset, and the company’s commitment to making sure such a network is in place was a part of this week’s presentation. That’s a good sign.
The first question I have when I hear about a new vehicle startup company is “how will this be sold and serviced?” Building a really cool one-off high-tech car or bike or boat or whatever is one thing, but being able to distribute and maintain them as a whole other game. (And of course, manufacturing is a huge hurdle in between.)
Nikola has stated that “there are currently more than 13,000 Nikola trucks on order,” and significantly, deals with big established commercial vehicle companies like Ryder and Thompson Machinery are apparently already in place to sell and service Nikola trucks all over North America.
Anheuser-Busch has ordered 800 of the things-and it would seem that that partnership is going well, as Nikola’s boss rode out onto the Nikola World stage with a team of Budweiser Clydesdale horses.
Over-the-road commercial trucks appear to be the core of Nikola Motor’s business. Being able to carry shipping containers over land without any diesel emissions would be a boon to the environment and I am all for it. But the UTV, military vehicle and watercraft the company’s pitching also feel like perfect candidates for vehicular electrification.
Off-road vehicles can benefit from the abundant torque of electric motors, as well as the more easily optimized weight distribution and not to mention silent running. If Nikola can get enough range out of its batteries, this application is a no-brainer.
Traditional gas-powered UTVs don’t typically have huge ranges on account of their small size anyway. As for the Nikola NTZ’s $80,000 asking price, it’s about four times what you pay for a current Polaris or Can-Am, but Nikola’s EV UTV looks a lot more luxurious. And if you’ve ever wondered how much it costs to set up a nice luxury off-roader-let me assure you, $80,000 is easy to spend.
The unfortunately named Reckless, a UTV Nikola is pitching specifically to the military, offers tactical advantages including the ability to be remotely controlled and of course that assignment propulsion we mentioned earlier.
As for the watercraft, I imagine energy storage will be challenging, considering the gluttonous rate boats consume fuel at. Then again, a Jet Ski-style vehicle really only needs to be able to run for about a half hour at a time. That’s about as long as you can spend on one of those without getting bored or exhausted.
It’s interesting that passenger cars do not appear to be on the company’s radar at all; likely a strategic decision to avoid a lot of regulatory and quality control headaches. UTVs and commercial vehicles get scrutinized, but not nearly as aggressively as passenger cars.
I’m cautiously optimistic about Nikola Motor and the future of alternative energy in commercial trucking in general. Throwing a big party before there are products on the road seems a little odd, but it looks like Nikola has a lot of logical ideas and I’d love to see its efforts push the charge towards cleaner tech in cargo transportation and power sports.