That Mysterious Electric Big Rig Company Just Bit Off An Even Bigger Project

Nikola has updated their renders with little “Hydrogen” decals. (Image: Nikola Motor Company)
Nikola has updated their renders with little “Hydrogen” decals. (Image: Nikola Motor Company)
Truck YeahThe trucks are good!

The Nikola Motor Company materialized a few months ago with sleek concept photos and incredible stats on an electric semi truck apparently coming soon. Twelve hundred miles of range! Zero emissions! Cheaper than diesel! And today, even more. Now the company says it will put 50 hydrogen stations in North America by 2020. Oh yeah, the truck is powered by hydrogen now.

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Until today, we’d been told that the Nikola One would be propelled by six electric motors (one per wheel) powered by a 320 kWh battery recharged by a turbine engine running off natural gas. Today, the company announced that turbine would actually powered a hydrogen fuel cell, working with regenerative braking to charge the batteries.

We’re still a few months from our first promised glimpse at a “real” prototype, but the company claims it’s already enticed millions of dollars in pre-orders, which it’s describing as “$2.3 billion worth of vehicles,” out of potential drivers. After making a deposit, Nikola says operators will be able to lease the vehicle for $5,000 to $7,000 a month (depending on options) which includes unlimited hydrogen fuel, mileage and maintenance.

Here’s a chart that explains everything, sort of:

Here’s how you’ll get free hydrogen, apparently. (Image: Nikola Motor Company)
Here’s how you’ll get free hydrogen, apparently. (Image: Nikola Motor Company)

And here’s Nikola CEO Trevor Milton’s statement on how the company will get hydrogen into their trucks:

“Nikola will produce hydrogen via zero emission solar farms built by Nikola Motor Company. These solar farms will produce over 100 megawatts each and will use electrolysis to create hydrogen from water. Even our manufacturing facilities will be run off of zero emission hydrogen energy.”

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And the zinger:

“Nikola plans to have a nationwide network of over 50 hydrogen stations for customers to begin fueling by 2020.”

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I’m no engineer, environmental or architectural, but building a fueling infrastructure of that magnitude from scratch sounds like a tall order for a 40 month timeline.

It’s not the first time the startup has made potentially game-changing yet unsubstantiated moonshot claims. This electric big rig, called the Nikola One, is supposed to do pretty much everything today’s diesel-powered semis can with no engines or emissions. “Half the operating cost of diesel,” their site advertises. But the electric drivetrain still turns energy from a 320 kWh battery into 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 lb-ft of torque, giving you plenty of pulling power. Allegedly.

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You can read the rest of the hypothetical specs Nikola has listed on its page, but we’re still a few months from our first promised glimpse at a “real” prototype.

Meanwhile we’re supposed to see the company’s first electric-hydrogen truck prototype by December of this year. I guess the execution of that demo vehicle will give us a clue of how capable the company is of making good on their claims. In fact, we get a little preview even sooner—Nikola has also been promising a fully electric UTV to bow at the Sand Super Sports Show in California next month.

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I can’t wait to hear your theories on how viable this “electrolysis” process is, commercially or scientifically. Based on what we know so far, which is very little, I’m still staunchly pessimistic about this project. But I won’t deny I’m fascinated by it.

Jalopnik Staffer from 2013 to 2020, now Editor-In-Chief at Car Bibles

DISCUSSION

otherjeffrotull
Jeffro Tull

Today, the company announced that turbine would actually powered a hydrogen fuel cell

I’m guessing you mean that it will have a fuel cell instead of a turbine? I can’t tell if there are too many or too few words in this sentence.

I can’t wait to hear your theories on how viable this “electrolysis” process is, commercially or scientifically.

No need for the scare quotes. Electrolysis is a known quantity. It’s how quite a bit of hydrogen (among other things) is produced already.

The problems with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles isn’t the production of hydrogen or the use of fuel cells to generate electricity. It’s the transport and storage of hydrogen in between those two. Pipelines and tanks for liquids and low pressure gasses are cheap, easy, and already exist in large quantities. Hydrogen has oodles of potential energy by mass, but it has an incredibly low density - that means you need very high pressures to store a meaningful amount of energy. High pressure + incredibly small molecular structure = leaks happen easily.