This has been the week for news about Nikola Motors, the Salt Lake City-based startup that is working to bring clean electric trucks to America’s highways. On Tuesday, it announced it had sued Tesla for trampling on its truck design patents. Most saw that as an underhanded way of raining on Tesla’s parade just before the Silicon Valley company had its Q1 earnings call. As it turns out, it didn’t much matter, as Elon Musk did his level best to turn the earnings call into a sideshow without any help from Nikola Motors.
Today, Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewing company in North America, announced it has placed an order for 800 heavy duty Class 8 Nikola One electric trucks, according to CNN. Those trucks replace the diesel engine found in most tractor trailers with electric motors, batteries, and a hydrogen powered fuel cell that supplements the output of the batteries. Nikola claims a maximum range of 1,200 miles for its trucks. Anheuser-Busch has also placed an order for 40 Tesla Semis.
The fuel cell Nikola will use is being supplied by Robert Bosch, one of the largest global suppliers to the automotive market. Bosch is also the company that provided diesel exhaust control systems for passenger cars during the past several decades, including Volkswagen.
There is much debate about the pros and cons of fuel cells. Elon Musk calls them “fool cells,” primarily because while their waste products are only water vapor and heat, hydrogen does not exist in its pure form in nature. It has to be manufactured, a process that takes a significant amount of energy. It can be made by splitting water into its component molecules, but in the United States, it is usually derived from methane — one of the most powerful greenhouse gases known to science.
Most methane is derived from fracking, a process that is anything but environmentally friendly. It often leads to millions of gallons of contaminated water and is often associated with earthquakes near drilling sites. (Not to mention tap water that is combustible.)
The Nikola One truck will weigh about 2000 pounds less than a conventional semi, even with high pressure hydrogen storage tanks inside its frame rail and a 320 kWh battery. Nikola says it will construct 28 hydrogen refueling stations to serve the needs of the Anheuser-Busch fleet. Those locations will also be available to drivers of fuel cell powered cars. The company says it will construct as many as 700 hydrogen fueling stations over the next few years.
Each truck will store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy and consume more than 70 kilograms of hydrogen each day. Nikola claims average fuel economy will be more than 15 mpg with a fully loaded trailer attached — about double what a conventional diesel truck is capable of. In addition to lower total fuel costs, the Nikola One is expected to need far less expensive maintenance compared to a conventional truck.
Anheuser-Busch will begin testing the Nikola One tractors later this year and expects to have all 800 trucks in service by the end of 2020. The debate about whether pure battery powered trucks are better than fuel cell enhanced units will rage on, with Tesla supporters vigorously defending their brand.
The truth is that different trucks will be best suited for different uses. Choices are good in the marketplace and anything that reduces the number of diesel tractors on the highways is a good thing for all Americans. Five years from now, a clear winner may emerge, but for now, competition is a good thing to move the clean transportation revolution forward.