Features
15 Jun 20

Tesla-rival Nikola to shake up American truck and semi market

Tesla has a brand awareness that is only surpassed by its market value. The company’s share price went through the roof last week, but Nasdaq followers will have noticed that another share in the same industry skyrocketed last week: that of Nikola Corp. What today is an unknown player could tomorrow be a competitor to be reckoned with, especially in the semi and pick-up truck business.

Nikola - the first name of the Serbian-American inventor and engineer Tesla - stayed under the radar for a long time. Until the company's IPO in early June and the incredible share price spike that followed. What is Nikola and where does it come from? And above all, where will it go?

The company was founded in Utah in 2014, but is based in Phoenix, Arizona, where it is currently building a factory. Not for electric cars, but for battery- and hydrogen-powered trucks and pickup trucks. But there's a lot more in the pipeline.

Almost 1,000 km electric range

The first product to hit American roads is a pick-up truck called Badger (what’s in a name). It wants to pick a fight with Tesla's controversial Cybertruck, although Nikola's founder Trevor Milton tweeted that he especially wants to push the untouchable Ford F150 off its throne. Who wouldn't: almost 900,000 of them were sold last year. The Badger is set to initiate its conquest from 2021, but in car country it is wise to speak in the conditional tense – certainly post-corona. Building a new factory as a non-automotive company, while creating a product that is reliable and meets quality and safety standards is not to be taken lightly, as a few companies will tell you. 

In terms of product approach, there are many similarities with Tesla, but there are also fundamental differences. After all, Nikola does not only want to build battery-powered vehicles, but also vehicles fuelled by hydrogen. The concept is comparable to that of the near-defunct Mercedes GLC F-Cell, the batteries of which can be charged externally while also offering the possibility to use the hydrogen in the pressure tanks to generate electricity on the go.

Nikola Motors proposes two versions of the electric Badger. The standard model features a big 160 kWh lithium-ion battery providing a driving range of 480 kilometres (300 miles). The top-of-the-range version combines this battery pack with a hydrogen fuel cell to double that (600 miles).

It goes without saying that the Badger comes with all-wheel drive as standard. Nikola mentions a continuous power output of 460hp, with short-term peaks of up to 910hp and more. Zero to a hundred km per hour should be possible in 3 seconds. Just like in a Tesla, the interior promises to be completely digital and hyper-connected.

AB InBev as a major customer

In addition to pick-up trucks, Nikola also works on battery- and hydrogen-powered semis. Interestingly, it has already found a major customer: AB InBev. The beer brewing group has allegedly ordered 800 heavy trucks worth billions of dollars, primarily to transport goods between two sites in California.

The lease rate for the semis reportedly includes maintenance and repair as well as fuel costs. According to Nikola CEO Mark Russell, his company can make hydrogen for roughly 2 dollars a kilogram. One kilogram of hydrogen contains as much energy as one gallon of diesel. So a truck that consumes 12 gallons of diesel per 100 miles would need 12 kg of hydrogen to do the same job. At today’s rates, 12 gallons is about 30 USD, whereas 12 kg of H2 costs just 24 USD, cutting fuel costs by 20%. And let’s not forget the environmental benefits.

The trucks would be delivered in the course of 2023 – if all goes well. To reassure those in doubt: CNH (Case New Holland) is one of Nikola's prominent shareholders. The Italian manufacturer of agricultural machinery, buses and construction equipment is said to own about 7 percent through its subsidiary Iveco.

The idea of the combo hydrogen-batteries is very interesting, because the fuel cell works as kind of a CO2-neutral range extender. At the same time you cannot deny that hydrogen is difficult to find as a fuel. Nikola realises that it has to contribute to the expansion of the filling infrastructure. That's what it does: it makes, installs and operates hydrogen filling stations itself.

Whether Nikola will cross the Atlantic or the Pacific to other regions is still unknown. In China it would have to compete with several local OEMs, in Europe it would stumble upon little competition. Only Mercedes-Benz Trucks and Volvo Trucks have announced concrete plans for hydrogen-powered HGVs

 

Authored by: Dieter Quartier