Exclusive first ride: Nikola electric truck can run in a hurry
PHOENIX – From a minimalist cockpit style cabin with nearly all functions visible on a 17 1/2 inch display screen to quiet battery electric operation and a turning radius that could jeopardize a typical semi-trailer , the Nikola Tre day cab is not improved computer image or hype. It’s a real truck.
Proof of that came during FreightWaves’ exclusive ride last Thursday on a 1.9 mile oval track in the Phoenix area.
Nikola (NASDAQ: NKLA) is racing against time after months of harsh media criticism, most recently expressed in the form of skepticism. The wheels came off at Nikola last September following a report from a short seller alleging the company was built on a litany of misrepresentation from founder and executive chairman Trevor Milton.
The resulting scandal shattered Nikola’s share price, caused Milton’s resignation, and thwarted a stock deal with General Motors. Pushed into crisis, Nikola has reconstituted his board of directors to restore his credibility.
A reasonable timeline of production milestones for just two products replaced Milton’s hype about an electric pickup truck, a breakthrough in battery chemistry, and a powersports division. These distractions are gone.
Nikola, a top pick among dozens of pre-revenue electric vehicle startups backed by Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPAC), faces the same supply chain issues that face established truckmakers with more. of resources and experience. The Tre comes from a startup, unlike the Freightliner eCascadia and the Volvo VNR Electric which are in fleet evaluation.
“We have headwinds that the rest of the industry, including the automotive industry, faces,” said Michael Erickson, global head of battery electric vehicles. “But we are working through countermeasures to address these risks and challenges. We are in the validation phase, and we could be thrown a curve ball. “
What Nikola needs most is a constant supply of battery cells, microchips, and displays to begin assembly later this month at a new factory in Coolidge, Ariz., Where it will assemble trucks imported in kits from Germany as well as fully painted cabins from an Iveco factory in Spain.
“There are many challenges ahead, especially when we run into problems with the short lead time available to us,” said Varoujan Sarkissian, global head of electrical and vehicle control systems. “From a timing perspective, we are still on track to deliver in Q4 2021.”
Living on the edge
With the stock price rising after a 52-week low in April, Nikola agreed last Friday to sell $ 300 million of new shares to an investment bank over the next three years, bypassing an offer to secondary stock for which he had registered with the Securities and Exchange. Commission.
Nikola lives on the fringes of a meme stock rally where short sellers make up just over 32% of available stocks. They’re betting the share price will go down, but could get stuck as Nikola steps into production and signs deals like the one with TravelCenters of America (NASDAQ: TA) to partner with hydrogen refueling stations. .
Arizona Power has agreed to sell low cost electricity to Nikola to produce hydrogen. In May, Total Transportation Services ordered up to 100 BEV and fuel cell trucks.
Each is a small victory that, taken together, adds up to something that feels like a momentum.
Sarkisian guided a tour of the truck during a one-hour visit to a facility where Nikola validates the Tre models.
“You can see we have nine square batteries here,” he said. “Each of them is the same [800-volt] battery. Basically you can trade them.
The batteries each weigh approximately 1,100 pounds. Their 7,200 volts combined provide a range of 300 to 350 miles with a load of 80,000 pounds. The batteries and cabin tip the scales at around 29,500 pounds, according to Damon Owens, director of product marketing.
“We just did a survey where we contacted fleets with a number of different profiles to choose from,” Owens said. “This one did well.”
The redundancy of multiple battery packs provides a backup similar to that of an aircraft that loses the function of an engine in mid-flight. Such failures are rare, but knowing that it’s okay to lose the function of up to three battery packs gives you peace of mind.
“This is a whole new technology. This truck has never been built before. So there is a lot of calibration work. Every time we refine it, we try to take it to the next level.
Varoujian Sargsyan, Nikola global electrical and vehicle control systems.
A second advantage is modularity. A fleet requiring less range can opt for six packs instead of nine. “All we have to do is take it and deploy it,” Sarkisian said. “We can even shorten the wheelbase of the truck.
The Tre’s electronic drive axle has two motors that connect via five chains of gears to the half-shaft and are linked to the tires. Even with bearings and other moving parts, the powertrain uses a fraction of the 3,000 parts of a conventional internal combustion engine and transmission. Two inverters, one horizontal and one vertical, send the energy to a distribution box, where it is distributed between the supply of the axle motor and the management of the auxiliary energy needs.
Nikola pushes its suppliers to manufacture as many 800 volt systems as possible.
“Anytime we can operate at 800 volts, especially at high loads, it is good for us,” Sarkisian said. “Every time you reduce the tension, you lose efficiency. In our vehicle, our air conditioning compressors, refrigeration compressors, our heaters, all are at 800 volts. Few people do this. You get a vehicle at this point and you have multiple strains.
Climbing the three steep steps into the enormous cabin reveals a modern setting with a push-button start and three black switches to move the truck. Abundant storage capacity throughout the cabin is transferred from the S-Way. Two folding seats added to the demo truck allow four people in the cabin when visiting potential customers.
A lack of engine noise – there is no engine – allows normal voice conversations. The distance from the cab back to the electric axle minimizes operating noise, even tire noise more pronounced on an electric vehicle than those drowned out by engine noise.
Because the transmission consists of a single gear, acceleration from zero to around 50 mph with a 65,000 pound concrete block load is smooth and quick. Ditto for reverse gear, where a push of a button rolled back the truck effortlessly from the driver.
“It’s a single gear, so you don’t need to change gears,” Sarkisian said. “The engines start to turn forward or backward. You tell them in which direction you want the couple.
Then there is the bend. In Europe, where roads tend to be narrower than in the United States, cabovers are chosen in part because of a narrower turning radius that allows maneuvering in tight spots.
In a deviation from the oval track, our driver demonstrates how little space is needed to make a 360 degree turn with the plateau. Trying this move in a conventional booth could result in a jackknife.
Most of the big screen features were offline for calibration when I visited. Seamless switching of the horn sound to mimic an air horn or electric horn worked well.
Originally for Europe
The Tre was originally intended exclusively for Europe. But he has protected the fuel cell electric trucks Nikola plans to build in Coolidge in 2023 as the fleets have shown interest and Nikola needs to generate income to help fund his fuel cell program.
Camouflaged Tre vehicles were ordered in Arizona after arriving from Germany for the installation of proprietary software and human-machine interface features that set the Tre apart from an S-Way.
“This is a whole new technology,” Sarkisian said. “This truck has never been built before. So there is a lot of calibration work. Every time we refine it, we try to take it to the next level.
The first trucks took three months to be fully commissioned. This period fell to less than a month for the most recent arrivals.
More than a donor organization
Critics see Tre as little more than a donor agency of Nikola’s partner. This kind of talk infuriates people who work around the clock on the Tre because on some level it’s true.
“We got a good coin bin when we partnered up with [Iveco]. With the deadlines available to us, this [allowed] focus on electrification, ”Sarkisian said. “Most of these things come from them. These are not easy things to build.
Thus, 90% of the Tre is adapted from the S-Way.
“Most of the software on the vehicle is ours,” Sarkisian said. “Functional software, domain software,” we write. Vehicle Controller Module, Terminal Module, Body Controller Module, Chassis Controller, Safety Gateway, HMI System are all exclusive developments of Nikola.
Nine “Alpha” versions intended for production of the Tre are now in the United States, bringing the total number of Tre units to 14. All electric vehicles produced at the Iveco plant in Ulm, Germany, are destined for the market. American.
“We don’t have a European trucking program that we’ve officially launched,” Erickson said. “However, we plan to do so in the relatively near future.”
Go further: Nikola claims superior class 8 autonomy
TravelCenters of America and Nikola plan hydrogen stations in California
Nikola goes private to raise up to $ 300 million in new money
Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.