As you may have seen, the electric car startup Nikola is making a few waves with their new electric/hydrogen fuel cell truck, the Badger. There’s a ton to cover here. From the practicality of hydrogen as a fuel and whether Nikola will be able to roll out their own fuel station network on top of manufacturing a new vehicle, all the way to the fact that they are up against some serious competition in the electric truck space. Oh, and I just have to take a jab at their less-than-clever company name.
With the announcement of the Cybertruck, electric F-150, Rivian, and the new Hummer EV project, the hype train is picking up steam in the electric truck world. With Elon Musk driving the Cybertruck all around LA, Ford literally towing trains of their own with the Electric F-150, and Rivian doing their best tank impression, Nikola looks to be a little behind here, but to their credit, they are offering something that no one else is: Hydrogen fuel cell technology.
To Address the Electric Elephant in the Room: The Name.
Nikola? Really? When I first heard the company name way back when they announced they were going to be building electric semi-trucks in 2016, I thought it was a parody. Maybe an SNL skit going viral, or some sort of elaborate prank, but nope. They were dead serious about it, and clearly decided to stick with it.
The name is basically the equivalent of a company in 1910 naming themselves “Henry” just to have an association with Henry Ford. OK, it’s not a 1:1 comparison, but it’s pretty close.
If only Nikola Tesla had a middle name so that we could have a third electric startup capitalizing on the mans legacy.
Ok, now that we got that out of the way:
The Viability of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles:
This is an idea that is very slowly picking up a following, and I really do mean slow. As of the day I’m writing this, there are only 44 hydrogen fuel stations in North America, and all but three of those is in California. This is a big obstacle to overcome, as even Tesla is still fighting to gain traction in certain markets by building out their supercharger network, and they now have over 1,800 stations (and 15k+ individual chargers) worldwide.
Still, more and more companies are putting resources into hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Honda and Toyota have been largely paving the way so far with their Clarity and Mirai respectively, but now Hyundai has entered the game with their well received Nexo CUV, and BMW is even joining the part with an upcoming X5 variant called the i Hydrogen Next.
A quick primer on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles:
Hydrogen fuel cells use a chemical process to create an electrical charge using hydrogen as fuel. This acts as a generator to then send the power to the electric motors and propel the vehicle forward, leaving water as its primary emission.
More detailed version:
There are of course some different versions and methods, but generally speaking, a fuel cell is comprised of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. They produce electricity by passing hydrogen through the anode of a fuel cell and oxygen through the cathode. On the anode side, the hydrogen molecules are split into electrons and protons. The protons pass through the electrolyte membrane, while the electrons are forced through a circuit, generating that usable electric current (as well as excess heat). At the cathode, the protons, electrons, and oxygen combine to produce water.
This sounds awesome, what’s the catch?
Well, there are a few problems here. First of all, while it sounds great initially that the only emissions produced from the vehicle itself is water (besides tire and brake dust particulates), there are downsides. Despite being the most prevalent chemical in the universe, unfortunately about 95% of the world’s industrial used hydrogen is manmade, and the process to do so creates quite a lot of carbon dioxide. While there are renewable energy solutions in place to produce hydrogen, but these are done on a much smaller scale and are not as efficient as more traditional methods.
Other problems arise in how expensive it is to manufacture the needed components, a safety concern stemming from the extremely high pressure on-board hydrogen storage tank, and the fact that hydrogen is very expensive to transport, with little infrastructure built to support mass transit of the chemical.
What the Badger Has Going for It:
In theory, an electric/HFC hybrid truck is a great idea. You get the power delivery and torque of the electric motors without the same range anxiety that you might have with a Tesla. Plus, the vehicles will have less of an air quality impact in urban areas than your average car, can be filled up (with hydrogen) much faster than current EVs, and can operate on either electricity or hydrogen, giving you options if you only have access to one of those two resources at the time.
Oh, and I think it looks pretty cool too.
The powerful advantage of a plug-in hybrid:
A lot of people mocked Motor Trend when they named the Chevy Volt their car of the year in 2011 (myself included, at the time), and the market seemed to follow suit, because the Volt (and its fancy sister, the ELR) was axed after its second generation. That’s a shame, though, because it turns out that they were onto something that the market wasn’t really ready to understand.
From the onset, the plug-in hybrid looks like bad compromise between a gas engine and electric motors. The first issue people run into with vehicles like the Volt and BMW i3 is the electric-only range. When buyers see that the car has an electric-only range of 53 miles, they would be forgiven for wondering what the point of the battery was at all. This is a shame, because once you factor in how far your commute is, you might be surprised at how little gas you would really be using. Even if you had an awful commute of 50 miles each way, that is still saving you half just by plugging it in each night.
The Badger really raises the bar on what the Volt already did so well, in that they are offering a Tesla-equivalent range 300 in electric only, and then an additional 300 in hydrogen range. This removes a lot of the uncertainty and math on how worth it that really is. The other perk for the Badger’s implementation of this is that you have full-time electric torque at the push of a pedal, no switching back and forth between modes of propulsion.
This setup makes a lot more sense for a truck owner, as this opens you up to doing more real truck things like hauling heavy loads and exploring the backwoods.
What the Badger Has Going Against It:
Hydrogen is a tough sell. Nikola is presenting a very optimistic plan for both rolling out these hundreds of hydrogen stations, and in the on-site hydrogen production. The plan is to have each station be more or less self sufficient for its own supply of gas via on-site electrolysis plant. Oh, and they will be solar powered. Seems pretty amazing, right?
Well in looking at the map of planned locations below, I see a whole lot of stations in places with less than stellar weather — not ideal for solar generation. And then there are the locations themselves. Many of them fall in major cities, places without a whole lot of real estate for big solar panels and a hydrogen production plant.
So in the places where solar panels are less than feasible to generate the majority of the electricity, you have to start wondering what the electrical cost is per mile of hydrogen range, and how that stacks up against charging a battery or even just filling up a tank of gas.
Or at that point would they just truck in the hydrogen to these stations? How expensive would that be across all of those back-country roads? There are a lot of questions here, and it’s not quite clear whether this would be more cost or power efficient than a straight EV or gasoline powered vehicle.
Only Time Will Tell:
The concept is very interesting, and I like the design a lot, but there is a very steep hill to climb for Nikola here. It is going to take a whole lot of funds to roll out a decent enough infrastructure of charging/hydrogen stations in order to incentivise people to want to hop on board — especially in contrast to the thousands of Tesla Superchargers, and the essentially unlimited number of gas stations around the country.
Their slated delivery of a working prototype by September seems a little optimistic to me at this point as well, given that we only have a few scant specs and some rather attractive renderings to go on so far. Even just the exterior design of the truck as we see in the renderings is pretty complicated for a new vehicle manufacturer — something that is especially worrying, because they are already contracting out their semi truck production to an existing truck builder. This is a whole other ball game.
So what do you think of Nikolas plan here? Think they can pull it off? Let us know your thoughts on the electric truck market down below!