Is the Nikola Motors Nikola Two an honest alternative to diesel-powered long-haul trucks or high-value vapor-wear? There’s intense debate in tech circles as to the validity of this enterprise. Few companies in the tech/automotive sector are presently more polarizing than Nikola. A good chunk of that group believes Nikola is nothing more than a stock scam. Others see it as a head-to-head competitor with Tesla’s Semi, despite the fact that Nikola has very few miles under its belt to show for all its effort and investment.
Listening to the critics and the fans, you get the sense that Nikola and Tesla are the only viable alternatives to those evil (their words, not mine) internal combustion engines. The facts suggest otherwise. All the major truck OEMs, plus a hand full of startups, already have viable battery electric vehicles in various stages of development in several different vehicle classes. Some are even for sale or lease on the open market today.
I see Tesla more as a distractor than a disruptor. The Tesla Semi is no better for all we really know about it than what Daimler, Paccar, Volvo, Workhorse, BYD and others are currently producing. If not for the screaming Tesla fan-boys, that odd-looking bundle of wire wouldn’t even be on the trucking industry’s radar screen. I hope I’m wrong, but Musk’s big play, when it comes to the Semi, is always to the tech crowd, not the trucking industry. Not a single one of Musk’s Mushers will ever buy one of those things, so if Elon wants to be taken seriously by potential customers, I think he needs to open the doors and prove the truck can keep up with an eCascadia, for example.
I could say much the same thing for Nikola. It’s founder and Executive Chairman Trevor Milton, every bit the showman as Musk, does seem at least to me somewhat more grounded. That said, we still don’t know much about the truck he’s hawking.
Nikola is playing in a smaller pond, with only two other players in the H2 fuel-cell electric sphere: Kenworth/Toyota and Canada’s Ballard Power Systems. Ballard has aligned itself with Daimler for a pilot project slated to begin in 2021 that will pull 140,000-pound loads on Super B-trains and turnpike doubles between Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The project is more about proving the efficacy of H2 fuel cells in commercial transportation and building out the H2 infrastructure to support the endeavor than the truck or the fuel cell itself.
I called Kenworth to get an update on its progress with Toyota, but they did not return the call by deadline.
Which brings us back to Nikola and Trevor Milton. In mid-July, he published on YouTube the second of his Nikola Two hand-held smartphone cam walkarounds of the truck. A week earlier he published a similar video showing the truck driving about a parking lot. These certainly aren’t the sort of product reveals we’re used to in the heavy-duty trucking industry, but then these weren’t reveals in that sense; they were clearly designed to build some drama in the tech-stock arena and satiate the mobs of naysayers who won’t accept that there’s at least one mostly functional Nikola tractor somewhere on the planet.
Actually, we saw two of them motoring around the WestWorld parking lot in Scottsdale, Arizona, during Nikola World 2019. As reveals go, Nikola’s was less dramatic than that of Daimler’s first self-driving truck, which drove across the Hoover Dam (under human management) while a video played, projected on the dam itself. Still, the two Nikola trucks appeared to be moving under their own power. Whether it was hydrogen power or battery power that propelled the rigs across the blacktop, we can’t be sure. It would be difficult to tell even standing beside one, because ultimately the wheels are powered by batteries and electric motors, and both along with the fuel cell stack, make very little noise. I’m prepared to take Nikola’s word on it — mostly because of the bevy of big-league supplier/investors associated with the project: Bosch, Meritor, NEL, ZF, Iveco, and others. I doubt they’d be easily bamboozled.
In fact, not long after Nikola World 2019 wrapped up, Jason Roycht, who was at the time vice president and regional business leader for commercial and off-road products at Bosch, jumped ship and joined Nikola as the vice president of technology and strategy. I doubt he’d be easily bamboozled either.
Milton’s first run-behind video didn’t reveal anything new, except that it works in really hot weather. Really? The truck was driving around a parking lot with no trailer at less that 20 mph. Real truck makers take their prototypes to Baker, California, to run them on a 7-mile, 7% grade in the scorching desert heat. As Milton noted in the video, “In really extreme weather, it causes all kinds of your components to act funny. And so if you can drive a vehicle in Phoenix summer, it’s been tested pretty well.” I’m not sure the OEMs who do their hot weather testing on the Baker grade would agree, but I digress.
However, Milton’s second video did offer some useful tidbits and even raised a few questions.
Version 1, 2 or 3?
Milton referred to the truck in the video as “the second version,” indicating that the Nikola 1, unveiled in 2016, was the first version. That truck, he said, was rebuilt from the ground up to produce this one, which he calls Nikola Two. Yet, the Nikola website describes the Nikola 1 as the long-haul sleeper version and the Nikola Two is a “regional” single-sleeper version. Darn those pesky details. Milton also noted that a “third version” was in the works, improving on the second version. While one might expect prototype vehicles to advance from generation to generation, I’m not going to call it the Nikola Three, yet.
The truck has two 500-hp electric motors per drive axle, each producing 600 lb-ft of torque. It’s available in a 6×4 or 6×2 configuration. If previous experience with 6×2 diesel tractors is any indication, the tire wear would be enormous with a single drive axle configuration at those motor ratings. Fleets might opt for the four-motor 6×4 setup just to keep the tire budget under control.
The motors are oil-cooled with a dedicated cooling circuit and housed in an aluminum casing that also houses the output shafts.
Each motor has its own inverter, allowing for independent control and possibly even stability control and steering assistance. Milton also said the vehicle would remain drivable if up to three of the motors or drive systems failed, much like any electric drivetrain with motors at each wheel-end. Electric trucks with single drive motors won’t have that advantage, but then we’re often reminded how much more reliable motors and power electronics will be compared to traditional diesel powertrains.
Lifting the Skirts
The video showed, for the first time, the chassis frame, hydrogen storage tanks, and the battery compartment. During a post-reveal briefing in 2016, Nikola’s chief engineer, Kevin Lynk, said the concept started with the chassis from another OEM, but the design team realized everything that was needed wasn’t going to fit.
“We eventually scrapped it all and started work designing a whole new chassis right from the ground up, designed around the powertrain,” he said.
Milton’s video shows a pair of traditional framerails extending rearward from beneath the cab, but the under-cab area appears crowded with nine compressed hydrogen storage tanks (7 kg capacity at 10,000 psi) and two 125 kW/hr battery packs. The tanks are stacked in triangular groups of three laid longitudinally under the cab, with the batteries mounted beneath the H2 tanks — separated by a layer of fire-retardant material.
The tank/battery subframe is made of aluminum and steel for strength, impact resistance and minimum weight, Milton indicated. The battery container seems to be roughly square, about the width and length of the cab. It’s suspended, judging from the shots on the video, about 10-12 inches off the road, which in my opinion doesn’t leave a lot of room to protect against a driver running off a tall curb or running over a ‘gator or other chunk of road debris. Unless they are using armor plate in the bottom of the battery box, there could be trouble.
On the positive side, with all that weight slung beneath the cab and even with or under the framerails, it will have a very low center of gravity, making it a very stable truck.
And speaking of batteries, addressing some oft heard criticisms, Milton said Nikola makes its own battery packs using cells from other suppliers such as Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and others, for example. He did not disclose specifically who supplies the cells.
“We do have cell technology in development, but we will not be making cells. We plan to license that technology to other cell manufacturers so they can be sold to everyone around the world,” he said. “We think it’s smarter to hand that IP [intellectual property] over to the big guys, but we will use those batteries as well.”
The cells are regular lithium ion, 21mm by 70 mm, providing good energy density. Where Nikola differs, according to Milton, is with the use of full dielectric fluid submersion of the battery cells. Submersing the batteries on a thermally but not electrically conductive fluid — commonly mineral oil, de-ionized water or some synthetic concoction — allows for more precise temperature regulation and faster heating and cooling of the batteries at startup.
Dielectric fluid submersion is commonly used to cool high-voltage power distribution equipment and is being explored as a means of cooling the IT hardware in large data centers, according to Matteo Mezzanotte, writing on submer.com.
The H2 tanks are made by an external supplier, “but we do make everything in our battery”, Milton said. “The cooling, the thermal, the battery management system, the software, the hardware; everything except for the cell. Let that clear up some of the fake lies out there that Nikola doesn’t do shit. You couldn’t build a truck like this if you didn’t pretty much do everything.”
Single-chip Electronic Architecture
“All inverters on the Nikola truck are probably some of the most advanced software systems that I know of anywhere in the automotive world,” declared Milton. “I know that because other OEMs are asking to use it.”
Milton says every controller on the vehicle, from body controllers to inverters and battery management systems, is all on the same chip architecture. “We designed the chip architecture, not the chips themselves. Every one of these chips are on the same boot loader,” he says, which vast improves the time it takes for an over-the-air update.
“We can update every controller on this vehicle within a few seconds,” he said. “It’s the same protocol, safe safety system, same boot loader, same everything. We are the only ones out there with this and we designed it in-house at Nikola, along with all the software on the truck.”
Among the other unique features of the truck is independent suspension at all wheel positions. Traditional tube and I-beam axles are not used. As we learned when the vehicle was first introduce in December 2016, the Nikola suspension is based upon Meritor’s ProTec line of independent suspensions, many of which are currently found on airport rescue trucks and tactical-wheeled military vehicles and armored personnel carriers. Meritor has been designing and building such suspensions for more than 20 years.
“SLA (short-long arm) independent suspensions have been around for years,” Dave Damian, director of sales and business development, Meritor Defense, told HDT at the time. “There’s nothing really unique or novel, here. It’s really more the application.”
It’s considerably more expensive and the cost/benefit analysis just doesn’t work with traditional trucks, but Damian notes that when combines with the axle-less electric drive system and the stiffness inherent in the combination frame and battery storage system, the cost/benefit equations swing quickly into line.
“The architecture makes perfect sense in the Nikola application,” he says, adding, “and the cost benefit is tremendous when combined with the electric drive system.”
Milton says the independent front suspension allows for a steering wheel cut of between 55 and 65 degrees. Perhaps a bit much for a highway truck, but hey, if you’ve got it, use it.
Progress and Testing
Nikola’s critics constantly call out it’s apparent lack of real-world miles, wondering if the truck has actually driven a mile under it’s own power. In fact, Milton’s previous BTS video attempted to address just concern, showing it driving around a parking lot. That’s a rather lame substitute for an accelerated million miles of reliability growth testing, if you ask me, but Milton insists it has pulled full GVW loads for a brewing company and been involved in hill-climbs and hot weather testing.
He says the real testing will begin with version three of the truck, currently under construction as mentioned above. “We have testing scheduled with customers for the end of 2021,” he said. “You’ll actually see these trucks driving on the road with customers, we hope, by the end of 2021.”
In the video Milton reiterated the lease package, with all costs including the hydrogen energy has it coming out at less than a dollar mile over a million-mile, 7- to 10-year plan. It that works out, it will make the Nikola a very cost competitive alternative to diesel. However, I can’t help but wonder how much it will cost Nikola to service these trucks as they get into the later years of the contract. It’s true that there are fewer reciprocating and rotating part to wear out than we find on a diesel truck, but certain things are bound to wear out and break over time. Just ask any maintenance manager who tried extending their four-year trade cycles to six and seven years back during the recession. The cost nearly ate them alive. And those concerns don’t even touch on the downtime and service failures that result from over-extended equipment.
Milton’s claim is a bold one indeed for a clean-sheet design with almost no reliability testing behind it. That makes it all a bit worrisome.
Asked if the truck would have an “autopilot” system, Milton said it would, adding, it would not be developed internally. “We have done our own gateway, one of the most advanced features we know of in a semi-truck, which allows the autopilot to work with anyone. We monitor certain commands and can over-rule in certain situations if we think they have made a mistake,” he said. “The autopilot will come from one of the top three autopilot companies in the world. There’s no reason for us to do it. It takes thousands of people. Tons of people have died from it. I don’t want to kill anyone, so I’m going to let someone else do the autopilot.”
It wasn’t clear if “autopilot” as referred to in the video is an SAE Level 2 assistance system or a fully autonomous Level 4 system, though some seem to think that “autopilot” means Level 4, when it truly does not.
We learned a few new things about the truck from Trevor Milton’s latest walk-around video, but many questions remain. From where I sit, the truck looks promising, provided he can make the hydrogen distribution work. Initial plans are to start building in areas where significant customer interest exists but producing solid sales contracts will be tough without some vehicles to test. They too are coming, he says, by 2021.
At this point he seems to have some pretty solid backing, and a pretty strong financial picture, but it irritates me that he’s still playing to Musk’s minions and trying to shout them down, while leaving the trucking industry, his only true customers, after all, kind of out of the loop.