SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Nikola Motor Company announced a slew of all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles on a cool Tuesday night in a warehouse surrounded by desert.
The company seems to be positioning itself as the “trucker’s Tesla,” serving up Budweiser (supplied by partner-customer Anheuser-Busch) and country music to the same industry watchers and investors that Tesla usually courts.
Of the five products that Nikola CEO Trevor Martin talked about on Tuesday night, very little came as a true surprise to watchers of the company. There were two trucks: the Nikola Two and the Nikola Tre (for European markets), as well as a Utility Task Vehicle (UTV) for off-roading, a military-grade UTV, and a previously unannounced jet ski.
The most important of these debuts were the trucks: Martin admitted later in a private discussion with the press that truck sales would make up the bulk of Nikola’s business and revenues. Back in 2016, Nikola announced its Nikola One truck, promising that by 2020 it would have a truck for sale with 1,200 miles of range from a combination battery pack charged by a hydrogen fuel cell.
Now, the Nikola One has been sidelined by the Nikola Two, which appears to be a better fit for actual commercialization: its powertrain can be made with a battery bank for all-electric operation, or it can be made with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell that constantly regenerates a smaller battery.
Although the new commercialization date is 2022, Martin said last night that Nikola is on track to meet that deadline.
Nikola says the fuel-cell version of this truck will have 500 to 750 miles of range, which is on the upper limit of what a person can drive in one stretch anyway. Refueling the hydrogen truck will take just 15 minutes at any of the 700 hydrogen refueling stations that Nikola has promised to build. (We assume the company will have more to say on hydrogen fuel Wednesday, when it’s scheduled to host a second talk given by its vice president of hydrogen technology, Jesse Schneider, and Nel Hydrogen, a European supplier of renewable hydrogen manufacturing equipment.)
The all-battery powertrain does not have a specific range yet, but the trucks will likely be sold to freight companies who want zero-carbon options for their shorter-haul operations.
Speaking to press, Martin said that Nikola decided to offer an all-battery option for its trucks so that the company could fit any route. “Weight is so important in the trucking world; every pound is worth 50 cents,” Martin said. But, he added, as batteries get more efficient over the next several years, the balance between battery weight and fuel cell weight might even out over time.
Martin said twice last night that he expects hydrogen fuel cell trucks to make up 80 percent of the company’s truck orders and all-battery trucks to make up the other 20 percent.
“The powertrain of the truck, whether it’s hydrogen or electrical, is identical,” Martin said, adding that customers can order trucks with hydrogen as a fuel, or they can order trucks with a 500, 750, or 1,000 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery pack. An efficiency figure for those batteries was not disclosed, nor did the company say who would be supplying the battery packs.
As is common these days, Nikola says that all of its trucks will have hardware for full level-four or level-five autonomy.
Still, the most important thing to come out of last night was the presence of actual demonstration trucks, which will be driving around a convention center track for spectators today. The company has faced criticism for talking big without proof that it can actually a truck, so offering concrete evidence of Nikola’s seriousness is important.
Though these trucks have been in development for three years, Martin has pushed a “revolutionary” narrative, saying on stage last night that “one of my requirements was that none of my engineers came from an existing trucking company,” because established trucking engineers are “in an environment where they’re taught to do a certain thing in a certain way, to make it incrementally better.”
“But I didn’t want to make it incrementally better,” the CEO said.
Nikola has been giving rides in its demonstration UTV, called the Nikola NZT, for at least a year, and at first glance it looks like little has changed. The vehicle has a battery pack that gives it 150 miles of range. It has four motors with Bosch-provided eAxle control, which Ars wrote about in 2017.
Nikola gave Ars a spin in its NZT last year in Michigan, promising production would begin this year. Now, commercialization has been pushed back to 2021, a year before the Nikola Two is scheduled to go to market. Nikola has already been taking reservations for its NZT.
Last night Nikola also showed off the Reckless, a military-grade UTV, which appears to be a heavier-duty extension of the NZT. Company representatives noted that the Reckless’ advantages are primarily in stealth. The UTV makes less noise compared to a diesel-powered UTV, it has almost no heat signature (especially if it’s operated in either the remote-control or autonomous modes, without a human in the passenger seat), and it can be fully submerged in water. It’s unclear whether the company has a contract to sell these to the military yet.
Finally, Martin announced the Water Adventure Vehicle (WAV), a jet ski with no emissions and little noise pollution. “Just as we’re disrupting how we move on the land, we’re disrupting how we move on the water,” Jordan Darlin, Nikola’s VP of powersports, told the audience last night. “You’ll now be able to explore the most pristine waterways without impacting the environment,” Darlin added.
Like the NZT, the WAV is set for commercialization in 2021. Few specs were given for the new jet ski, other than Martin mentioning that it has a 12-inch 4K display that is apparently fully submersible. Reservations for the WAV opened up last night.
It takes a village
Automotive engineering and electronics firm Bosch worked very closely with Nikola in developing the company’s trucks and off-road vehicles. The truck features a vehicle control unit (VCU) running a “secure operating system that provides real-time, over-the-air updates and monitoring,” according to a press release from Bosch.
In a conversation with Bosch prior to last night’s launch, Commercial Vehicle Vice President Jason Roycht said that Bosch’s relationship with Nikola was special, and the company had a team of engineers in Phoenix helping Nikola build the “not so interesting,” but necessary, parts of the truck. These include optimizing Nikola’s trucks for fuel efficiency (unsurprisingly, Nikola’s first trucks will be sold with fuel contracts, so the company essentially shoulders the burden of paying for fuel), as well as modeling truck designs to manage braking and other thermal issues that come with driving a very heavy vehicle.
The company has also supplied Nikola with its Servotwin electrohydraulic steering, which is relatively novel for the trucking industry and will support automated driving in the future.
Despite skepticism around hydrogen as a fuel in general, Roycht said Bosch thinks fuel cells have potential in freight, where routes are more or less preplanned and where it will be easy to set up corresponding refueling centers.
Nikola has also partnered with Ryder to provide leasing and service to its customers. “With billions of miles under their belt, they already service trucks,” Martin said last night. “We don’t want to service our own trucks; it’s too expensive, too difficult.”
Finance and legal
A recurring theme at last night’s announcement was that regulation is a burden unsuited to innovation. Martin pulled Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) on stage to praise Nikola’s new home state, Arizona, as a low-regulation environment.
Nikola recently acquired large tracts of land in Arizona to build its manufacturing center and recently announced hydrogen lab. The company has promised to employ thousands of people in exchange for local tax breaks.
In response to a question about what government could or should do to foster zero-emissions innovation, Martin said he hoped regulators would “get out of the way,” claiming it could take three to four years to permit a hydrogen refueling station, when it needs to take much less time.
But Nikola isn’t totally averse to the long arm of government. In May of last year, Nikola sued Tesla for $2 billion, claiming that its Nikola One truck cab, which debuted before the Tesla Semi, looked “substantially similar” to Tesla’s all battery electric cab. In December, the case was transferred from Arizona District Court to the Northern California District Court (PDF), where a judge is permitting a one-year discovery phase.
Currently, though, Nikola seems adequately situated, especially on the financing side of the company. Martin said last night that his company is about to open a $1.5 billion financing round, without any debt yet. Responding to a question about whether he plans to take the company public, Martin said no and pointed to Tesla. “I feel really bad for what Tesla’s going through,” Martin said, explaining that he thought the company was getting unfairly penalized for missing targets.