Are Heavy-Duty Electric Trucks the Future for Fleet Owners?

 In EV Industry

If you think passenger cars running on fossil fuels represent an emissions and maintenance nightmare, think about the impact of a semi truck burning over 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year. Class 8 commercial vehicles remain a prime target for environmental advocates, government regulators, and fleet operators alike.

So with the announcement that a “near-zero-emission” electric truck by Nikola Motor Company has at least $10 million in pre-orders ($2.3 billion worth of vehicles), concerned parties have started paying attention. The truck, dubbed Nikola One, promises to render 20,000-lb. diesel trucks obsolete. The truck claims to:

  • Deliver fuel economy 2-3 times better than diesel
  • Weigh 2,000-3,000 lbs. less than a diesel truck
  • Accelerate and brake faster than diesel
  • Offer a massive upgrade in horsepower and torque

Yet without a prototype to speak of, there is real cause to direct the announcement to the “too good to be true” file. Nonetheless, Nikola insists the truck will make its debut in December 2016.

Should the company make good on its promise, the industry could begin to see a transformation. Here are some features that make Nikola One an excellent vision for the future.

Nikola Motor Company heavy-duty electric truck

Electric Motors and Natural Gas Turbines

The drivetrain is of primary importance for anyone hoping to comply with government regulations and trim fueling costs. In this case, Nikola promises a natural gas-powered turbine with room for 100 gallons of fuel. This system runs the electric motors for up to 1,200 miles after filling up. (The truck could travel over 100 electric miles with a full battery and no help from the turbine.)

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Its power specs are daunting:

  • 320 kWh battery pack
  • 2,000 horsepower
  • 3,700 lb-ft of torque
  • 6% incline speed up to 65 miles per hour
  • 0-60 under load in 30 seconds
  • Up to 1,200 miles of range

These figures outperform diesel on every count, and without the giant oil-burning engine. Nikola One aims to save a several thousand pounds per load, even counting the proposed world-leading battery pack.

The Economy Angle

Heavy battery packs are known to weigh down vehicles, but Nikola’s truck will weigh between 18,000 and 21,000 pounds. The company claims it will achieve between 10 and 15 miles per gallon, aided by aerodynamics, regenerative braking, and six-wheel electric drive at 95% efficiency. All told, it would cost approximately half to fuel per mile compared to a diesel.

Fleet owners would capitalize on the low operating costs, but each load would become more profitable with at least a thousand pounds more capacity. Up to 1,000,000 miles of free fuel will be available to the company’s first consumers whether choosing a lease ($5,000 per month for 7 years) or purchase ($375,000).

Maintenance and warranty costs are included in the pricing up to seven years or a million miles. There is no mileage limit for the lease. Reservations are $1,500 per truck.

Fueling on Natural Gas?

Clean Energy CNG station

Truck operators may be put off by the idea of managing routes based on natural gas stations, but Nikola intends to build and supply its own stations using raw materials from company wells. Drivers would never be more than 400 miles from a station, and they are strategically planned off highways to accommodate long driving schedules.

With this point, Nikola is hoping to follow the lead of Tesla – the EV maker who took the second part of the Serbian inventor’s name. Rather than waiting for slow-developing infrastructure to be introduced by governmental organizations, both companies are supplying the power to get customers moving as soon as the vehicles hit the market. (Nikola has 55 CNG stations planned.)

Of course, the obvious difference is the breadth of range. Whereas Model S drivers could get as many as 240 miles in 30 minutes using a Supercharger, a Nikola One could get another 1,200 miles of range from filling up natural gas tanks within 15 minutes.

What Could Go Wrong

Fleet owners have every reason to be skeptical of a concept that lacks even a prototype. The upfront cost would be approximately double what a diesel semi would run you, but the minimal operating costs make it close to a slam dunk, especially if free fuel remains part of the deal.

Still, there are several things that could go wrong between now and 2020 when the Nikola One is expected to hit the road, including:

  • A slower-than-expected drop in battery prices
  • A botched roll-out of CNG stations
  • Heavier truck weight than promised
  • Delays due to funding issues
  • Pull-backs in the free fuel promise

Ownership of natural gas wells and the ability to convert it to fuel should give skeptics some confidence in this department. However, permitting and other issues could potentially hold back Nikola the way hydrogen stations have hampered growth in the fuel cell vehicle segment. Toyota had to temporarily pause sales of its Mirai in California for this same reason.

Light-Duty Electric Truck Alternatives

EVfleet electric trucksFleet operators may want to start smaller in order to get an idea what heavy-duty electric trucks would offer in the coming years. Between plug-in hybrid pickups to 100-mile pure electric trucks developed by Charlotte-based EV Fleet, more options are coming in 2016.

Foster City-based Motiv Power Systems has already delivered 10 electric step vans for AmeriPride, which plans to convert 20% of its Vernon, California fleet to zero-emissions vehicles in the coming years.  Solutions of this nature, which utilize the Ford59 chassis, are possible without any major tech developments, and available incentives make them easier decisions while battery prices remain high.

Models like the AmeriPride step vans, which can cover about 80 miles on a full charge, have the same route density limitations as passenger plug-in cars in 2016.

Where Electric Trucking Is Headed

As heavy- and light-duty diesel engines get phased out for government work and emissions regulations become stricter, plug-in and pure electric trucking solutions will enter the picture with force.

Battery costs will need to drop significantly in order for the equation to work in volume for fleet owners, though incentives that exist for early adopters may make the upfront cost viable. Fleet owners who continue to see the big picture have a chance to implement some EV technology now.

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  • Benoit Laflamme

    I think it would also be important to talk about the strategy to wire infrastructure instead of continuing to add battery capacity. There are a few pilot projects in high-density areas in Europe.