Making an electric semi work isn’t easy, but it’s not rocket science.
The busiest man in tech already faces looming deadlines for getting a battery factory up to speed, the Model 3 out the door, and a secret payload (probably a spy satellite) into orbit. So you might think he’d resist adding to his to-do list. Nope. Turns out he’s got a team working on a battery-powered truck he will reveal in September, as part of his master plan to shift the world to sustainable energy.
I hear you chuckling. But this idea is not crazy as you might think. Plans for such a truck, if they truly exist, almost certainly call for batteries alone, because Musk disdains hybrids and range-extended electrics like the Chevrolet Volt. That makes his idea easier to design and build than a conventional car, SUV, or pickup (which Musk also wants to make). It helps that he’s not the first guy to think of this. Nikola Motor Company is pursuing a similar goal.
Semis and the trailers they haul are big enough to hold the ginormous battery pack needed to do the job. The frame of a semi is essentially a pair of long steel rails, which could easily support a battery pack (which also could go behind the cab). Ditching the internal combustion engine saves more space, and lets you use smaller motors on each axle or even each wheel. Electric motors provide oceans of torque, improving acceleration and pulling power, and slinging the battery and motors between the frame rails lowers the center of gravity, improving handling. Tidier packaging increases aerodynamic efficiency, which squeezes more range from the battery.
The biggest drawback? Range. Long-haul truckers typically cover 400 to 600 miles a day, something hard to do with batteries alone—unless you’re packing a mighty big one.
“I imagine they’ll use a 600-kWh battery, possibly up to 800-kWh,” says Nikola CEO Trevor Milton. (The Model S sedan sports a pack that tops out at 100 kilowatt-hours.) With a little math, Milton figures “Musk’s truck will get around 200 to 300 miles range.”
Not much, which explains why Nikola uses a hydrogen fuel cell generator to boost range to 1,000 miles.
Still, 300 miles works for short, repetitive routes. Two hundred miles gets you from the Port of Los Angeles to the vast distribution warehouses in Riverside and back with range to spare. Ditto Oakland, Seattle, and so forth. You can see these things working in urban areas, where diesel trucks create a lot of air pollution and noise. That explains why officials with the Port of LA like the idea of electric trucks powered by overhead lines like trolley buses.
Electric trucks schlepping stuff short distances makes sense because they typically return to a depot, which makes charging a snap. But here, too, Musk’s idea makes a certain kind of sense. Long-haul trucks tend to use interstates, where Tesla already has a network of Supercharger stations. The chargers can get a Model S sedan to 80 percent charge in as little as 30 minutes. A truck would need longer, of course, but don’t forget that federal rules dictate how long truckers can drive without a break. If they’ve gotta take a break anyway, why not charge up?
Granted, EV drivers visiting the most popular Supercharger stations often find themselves waiting in a queue. Selling the Model 3 in any significant numbers will exacerbate that problem, so you can imagine what might happen if Tesla starts building big rigs. “They’re also going to run into problems with the grid—just try charging 100 trucks at one location,” says Milton. Dedicated truck charging stations at the most common origins and destinations makes more sense, and could be sold as a package to a fleet management company. Who knows—Tesla could even team up with a chain of truck stops to provide charging.
A Tesla-Inspired Truck Might Actually Make Hydrogen Power Happen
Let’s do the joke first: Hydrogen’s the fuel of the future, they say. And it always will be.
Because for all the upsides—combining zero emissions driving with the ease of refueling in just a few minutes—hydrogen fuel cells have gotten approximately nowhere. It’s the chicken and egg thing: No one wants to buy a car without a refueling infrastructure to back it up, and no one wants to build those hydrogen stations without customers to serve.
Now, a startup truck manufacturer has big plans to change that by taking a lesson from Elon Musk, and providing both pollo and heuvo. And, if it can convince truckers to try out a new kind of driving, it might finally deliver the future of hydrogen that always seems to be in transit, never arriving.
Last week, the Nikola Motor Company (rhymes with Ricola) unveiled the Nikola One, an 18-wheeler powered by a 320-kWh battery (Tesla’s most capable car gets 100 kWh) with a hydrogen fuel cell generator that keeps it charged on the road. Tanked up, the truck will have up to 1,200 miles of range, along with the performance benefits of electric propulsion, like piles of torque and a low center of gravity.
Starting around 2020, Salt Lake City-based Nikola plans to lease its Tesla of trucks for between $5,000 and $7,000 a month. Crucially, that includes free hydrogen fuel for the first seven years or million miles, available at hundreds of stations Nikola plans to build across the country.
This plan looks, well, let’s say ambitious—but then, so did Tesla’s Supercharger setup: In 2012, the electric car company moved to soothe range anxiety among potential buyers by building an international network of proprietary stations where they could recharge for free. (Starting January 1, the charge-for-life deal is kaput.) Nikola aims to entice individual truckers and fleets into going with hydrogen by making sure they’ve got somewhere to fill up, for free. Nikola would keep those stations stocked by building solar farms to generate the energy needed to create hydrogen fuel.
Right now, fuel cell vehicles work only where the infrastructure needs are minimal. Cities around the world have started operating hydrogen-powered buses, because you need just one place to fill up, not a whole network. Sandia National Laboratories researchers think a hydrogen-powered ferry service could work in San Francisco because, yup, you only need one or two places to fill up.
Trucks need more infrastructure, but not a ton more. Nikola CEO Trevor Milton says 364 stations across the US should suffice. They’d sit about 400 miles apart, comfortable range for a truck that can triple that distance. Milton bases that number on computer analysis of common trucking routes, and says his company would start by building up the network in one to-be-determined region in 2018, and spread from there.
This good news for everyone who thinks the most abundant element in the universe is a good way to make things move is that, unlike Tesla, Nikola will let anybody pump hydrogen, for a modest price. “You’re gonna have nationwide infrastructure now,” Milton says.
Even a few dozen stations would be a major boost over the 31 currently operating in the US—one each in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and South Carolina, with the rest in California. That means automakers like Toyota and Honda, which actually sell (some) hydrogen-powered cars, could piggyback off Nikola’s investment. “We’re all about proliferation of hydrogen as a fuel,” says Toyota spokesperson Brian Lyons. If someone else is paying for it, even better.
Yet that rosy future only pans out if Nikola can sell enough trucks to justify building that infrastructure, and stick around to keep it running. That’s hardly a given, because truckers aren’t risk-takers, says Jim Mele, editor-in-chief of Fleet Owner magazine. Looking at Nikola’s offer, he says, “The numbers sound right, but there’s no way to know if they’re true.” The explosion-friendly nature of the stuff that took down the Hindenburg isn’t even the problem here—hydrogen’s safe if handled properly. It’s that this scheme is based on a whole lot of new: new technology, new company, new infrastructure, new business model.
If any of that goes wrong, the trucker loses money. “Reliability’s a huge thing,” Mele says. “People would be cautious about it.”
Hydrogen fuel cells wouldn’t be the first technology to flunk the trucking test: In 1964, Fleet Owner featured a turbine-powered truck. “It was going to revolutionize trucking,” Mele says. “I don’t see any of them on the road.”
But hey, maybe Nikola can get truckers on board—and finally deliver that hydrogen future the world’s been waiting on.