Are we Ready for This?
Upon seeing the Nikola One, Nikola Motors’ revolutionary electric semi-tracker design, I immediately remembered one of John Wayne’s most popular movies, “Big Jake”. Taking place in 1909, Wayne hunts the men who kidnapped his grandson with his sons, the youngest of which is embracing the technology of the turn of the century to help in the hunt. Son Michael rides a motorcycle into battle while holstering the first automatic pistol. The Texas Rangers in the posse ride in three “new” automobiles - REOs, which were the first incarnation of Ransom E. Olds, the same man who would later found the Oldsmobile car company. Innovation is exciting, but as is illustrated in the movie, being ahead of the times can prove comical. On a tip, the Rangers’ speed ahead in their REOs only to be shot up in an ambush leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere with flat tires and shot up engine blocks. Wayne, on the slower horse, shows up to the aftermath.
The cars were indeed faster, and a sign of things to come. But being ahead of the times, there was no gas station, no repair shop, no tow truck, and no roadside assistance to help the Rangers. Wayne refused them one of his horses so they could ride for help, instead saying, “when I get the nearest city, I’ll tell them you’ll be walking in.”
Key Problem 1
That’s the first key problem facing such innovation. Without the support services than must be in place for new technology to be effective, few are willing to gamble on such innovation in fear they may find themselves “walking in.”
But this does not imply that such innovation is doomed to fail. Some innovation does fail - miserably. Few remember the Beta player as VHS proved to be the best innovation of the 1980’s. Of course, VHS is a dinosaur now, and that reveals the second key problem. Is the electric semi the future, or a fad that will fade in the face of something better? Natural gas powered trucking is already being embraced in some circles, especially in California where the infrastructure in the form of NG fueling stations is growing at a staggering pace.
Whether future or fad, the new Nikola (pronounced Nih, as in “if”, coh luh) Motor Company has unveiled the world’s first functioning and truly long-haul electric semi. Electric semi’s are not new. BMW built one that can travel 60 miles on a single charge and other companies are flirting with designs. But the Nikola One boasts numbers that appear to rival that of its diesel counterparts.
Though none are on the road yet, Nikola Motors is finalizing assembly on a Class 8 long hauler capable of pulling 80,000 lbs and able to travel 1,200 miles on a single charge. Six 335 horse power electric motors independently powering the rigs six wheels combine to provide over 2,000 hp and over 3,700 ft-lbs of torque. These power plants are claimed to provide “superior horsepower, torque, acceleration, pulling and stopping power over any Class 8 truck on the road” according to an article by OEM Off Highway in May 2016.
In that same article, it is reported that because the vehicle is an automatic (no shifting), the Nikola can climb a 6% grade at 65mph whereas typical Class 8 rigs (the largest on the highway) “under similar conditions would have a hard time reaching 35 mph.” On the downhill, the engines actually produce energy as they “absorb the braking energy normally lost and deliver it back to the batteries, increasing component life, miles per gallon, safety and freight efficiencies while eliminating noisy engine brakes and reducing the potential for runaway trucks.”
It should be noted that the battery bank is charged by a turbine, which needs fuel. “There are 100 gallons of natural gas on board, enough to power this truck up to 1,200 miles without stopping to fill up.” Thus, it does not operate on a truly fuel free basis though fuel operating costs are up to 67% less expensive per mile. The turbine can be custom ordered to run on diesel, natural gas, and even regular gasoline.
It also includes a “first ever, 6x6 torque vectoring hardware and software system” that in theory allows for “safer cornering, double the stopping power, improved traction, less tire wear and longer component life over current Class 8 trucks.”
Since most of the trucks heavy components sit at or below the frame, the center of gravity is thus lowered which improves drivability and safety. And certainly removing the heavy diesel engine from the equation provides a “drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a larger and more aerodynamic cab and a significantly quieter and more comfortable ride.”
Increasing driver comfort, the Nikola One boasts a fully independent suspension which reduces vibration along with a “tightly controlled suspension geometry.”
Inside the cab, the Nikola One is a futuristic setting. It features sliding mid-entry doors, a full-size fridge and freezer, electric climate controlled cabin, 15 in. touchscreen infotainment display, 10 in. instrument cluster display, 4G LTE internet and Wi-Fi, over the air software updates, panoramic windshield, sunroof, two full size beds, microwave and a 42 inch television. Such comforts are a selling point for road weary truckers. But such innovations also point to the third key problem this rig may face.
Key Problem 2
Truckers are typically traditionalists. The “feel” of a diesel engine ride is a valuable aspect of a driver’s ability to drive. It’s the difference between really riding a motorcycle versus playing a video game where you ride one. Though the Nikola One is no video game, the instincts of a truck driver are often ignored in fully understanding their professional abilities.
A rig is often little more than an extension of the driver. Though cliché sounding, many great drivers operate a rigs as though it is an extension of his or her body, skills, and personality. The features of this electric semi promise to virtually eliminate such driver/machine connection as a quiet, smooth, noise abated ride may simply feel like less of a machine and more like a video game.
Regardless, it is likely what the old horseman of the West may have felt upon first getting behind the wheel of a car, but that did not stop the inevitable end of the horse drawn era. As of June of 2016, the company boasted 7,000 orders for the new rig.