Water fueling new wave of truck technology: Fuel Cell’s epic return

Like Tiger Woods at the Master’s this year, hydrogen fuel-cell power for trucks is back baby! Also like Tiger, hydrogen fuel cells for powering commercial vehicles have been a celebrity on the emissions-free vehicle links for decades now, minus the messy divorce, and whole nine-iron in the back window thing of course.

Ready to deliver the power of water to fuel trucking’s next wave of emission’s-free motive power, Nikola extolled the benefits of two new designs, the Nikola Tre (for Europe only) and the Nikola 2 just before Easter. For hydrogen fuel-cell powered semi’s it truly is a comeback of sorts, but unlike Tiger, the technology never actually made it to the Masters as a prominent competitor.

Hydrogen fuel cells to make electricity is one of those “Future is now!” technologies that has been on the periphery of industrial and commercial application for years. Sure, piloted it here, demonstrated there, the tech is on a solid foundation, but it just did not catch on – mostly because of the infrastructure required to supply hydrogen fuel reliably, sustainably and geographically to over-the-road vehicles.

According to the founder of Arizona startup Nikola Motor, CEO Trevor Milton, says the problem isn’t the technology; and for a variety of reasons it makes a much better choice for trucks than batteries. Why? Because batteries boys and girls; very HEAVEY batteries.

Bottom line, says Forbe’s transportation technology editor Alan Ohnsman, is Nikola is acting as a catalyst to bring hydrogen to the mainstream (get it?), and execute on plans to build thousands of hydrogen-powered trucks and deliver a coast-to-coast hydrogen station network to fuel them and all the cars and stuff Milton and Nikola want to power and sell too.

Among things needed to accomplish his vision of the present future, Milton says he would like to see Toyota, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Daimler to join the party and extend their program, announced in January.

The partnership Milton is talking about is part of a $41 million Zero and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities (ZANZEFF) grant preliminarily awarded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), in an alliance with the Port of Los Angeles.

Not the Science Project Dad Helped You With

The grant money is part of a larger $82 million program designed to put fuel cell electric tractors, plus other zero-emissions cargo handling equipment—along with the hydrogen fueling infrastructure—into operation in the ports operating in the Los Angeles basin by 2020.

“This is not just a science experiment; the goal is to make a difference in society – to remove pollution and improve the air quality in and around the Port of Los Angeles,” says Bob Carter, executive vice president of Toyota Motor North America.

EV Manufacturer Nikola AnnouncesTwo New Trucks … and a Very Cool Jet Ski

Nikola’s fuel-cell trucks, says Milton, are aimed at the long-haul market and will provide up to 1,200 miles of range on a tank of compressed hydrogen: “They are both electric trucks; it’s just a matter of how the electricity is stored,” Milton explained to

The electric vehicle (EV) media and others are reporting the Nikola 2 will be available in 2022. One journal reported the company was initially championing the Nikola 1 design, but, say the media, its new leader on the board is destined to be the lighter stronger, extremely fit and talented Tiger, er, Nikola 2.

Fleet Testing Begins Soon

Nikola’s plan is to start fleet testing with 25 trucks in 2020, with plans to grow that to 100 by 2021. According to Nikola’s announcement, plans are to launch limited commercial production in 2022 and full production in 2023 tin a yet-to-be-constructed new plant near Phoenix.

Offering an estimated 500 – 750 mile range, 1,000-hp and a 15 – 20 minute charge time, the Nikola 2 employs a hydrogen powered fuel cell instead of traditional batteries. Hydrogen remains Nikola’s primary focus, and says Milton, his company has more than $14 billion in preorders for its fuel cell trucks and expects them to account for more than 95% of the his business.

Great Alternative to Diesels Packaged in a Great Wrapper

A visit to the Nikola site reveals a great vision for a modern truck and it immediately highlights the technologies distinct advantages. For instance, while diesel engines require high RPM's to reach peak torque, Nikola notes correctly, electric motors hit peak torque almost instantly. This says the company enables Nikola trucks to accelerate up to 2 times faster than a stock diesel tractor.

Nikola 2 offers “better aerodynamics, using energy only when needed with no idling, regenerative braking.” CEO Milton says highly efficient electric motors and fuel cells are just a few of the factors that give his trucks such terrific operating economies. Torque vectoring, says Nikola’s web site allows control of each wheel independently through drive-by-wire. Each wheel torque is adjusted to be optimal during cornering, maneuvering, accelerating and braking resulting in better efficiency and stability.

As mentioned, stored on-board hydrogen fuel is lighter than an equivalent array of lithium-ion batteries. That puts the Nikola 2 about 5,000 pounds lighter than full-on electrics. Of course the new truck is chock full of great tech like advanced driver assistance, regenerative braking and air disk brakes, According to their marketing, Nikola trucks begin braking within 10 milliseconds; hundreds of times faster than advanced air-only disc brakes. Now that is sexy.

Climb on in, the Water’s Fine

One great feature of the truck is its unobstructed mid-cab entry. “With no diesel engine,” says the company, “Nikola was able to move the driver forward and add a panoramic windshield for better overall visibility.” Very nice. Company also adds some nice automation including digital camera mirrors provide better visibility and reduce blind spots. When turning, cameras adjust automatically with trailer movement.

On a final note, Nikola Motors will go head-to-head with Tesla in the battery-electric heavy truck market by offering battery-dependent versions of its hydrogen fuel-cell day-cab trucks. Regardless, Nikola’s Milton wants to assure you the water’s fine, no need to dip a toe – just jump on in.