It’s a long climb up into the cab of the Nikola Tre, but oh, so worth the effort.
The cab floor is nearly 5 feet off the ground, and the roof stands a little over 13 feet high. In between is a vast expanse of glass offering the best view of the outside world of any truck on the road today, bar none.
If you’ve heard stories from old-timers with serious miles on old-style American cab-over-engine trucks, ignore them. The Tre, built on a European Iveco S-Way platform, rides like a luxury motor coach. Any resemblance to our old COE trucks ends at the front bumper.
Nikola was offering ride-n-drives on a battery-electric Tre at the American Trucking Associations Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting in Orlando in late February/early March. Slots to get a ride in a Tre were booked solid within hours of posting the invitations. Media types were offered extended drives later in the afternoon, after all the potential paying customers had a go at it.
I had about an hour behind the wheel, where I took a lap around the convention center and then headed out onto the freeway. I also got a demo of Plus’ next-generation advanced driver-assistance system, PlusDrive. There’s more on that below.
The trickiest part of driving the Tre is knowing which leg to use to begin climbing into the cab. I saw more than a few first-time COE’ers with their legs all tangled up as they swung into the seat. It’s the left leg, by the way. The same on the way down, but that’s a bit more intuitive.
Once you’re in the seat, you’re struck by how high you sit. The driving position is really only a foot or so higher than most conventional trucks, but the big windshield and the sheer drop to the ground right out front gives the impression of altitude. The view is amazing, and while the mirrors are large and do create some blind spots, the area around the right front wheel is well covered by the right-hand convex mirror and a look-down mirror built into the right side of the sun visor. Overall, the visibility is terrific.
The Digital Cockpit in the Nikola Tre
The wrap-around dash sits fairly tall, leaving no misunderstanding that you’re in a truck. The dash panels are very tidy, too. There are few mechanical controls, save for the parking brake release switches. I say switches rather than valves, because that’s what they are. Nikola uses the Bendix Intellipark system. It’s an electronic switch wired over the actual brake valves, which are probably tucked under the cab somewhere. You can’t hear the parking brakes release or apply, which is a bit strange.
All the information the driver really needs, such as the speedometer, is on the dash A-panel. There are various displays showing battery state of charge and remaining range, but little else. It’s very uncluttered and easy to read, with white lettering on a black background. Conspicuously absent is a tachometer, which of course is hardly necessary with an electric drivetrain.
When the truck is in motion, the screen displays lane position, following distance, etc., which is tied into a stock ADAS system. PlusDrive adds another dimension to that.
While other OEMs have recently introduced glass display dash panels, none are as large as the 17-inch B-panel touchscreen in the Tre. This is where the driver can choose a multitude of functions from the menus. The common stuff, like headlights, climate control, radio, etc., are always displayed, with other items laying not too deep in the various menus. There’s even a touch-control for the diff locks on the screen. No more clunky air solenoid control with its protective wire cage.
Nikola Tre Cab and Chassis
The Tre as driven sits on a 186-inch wheelbase, which is a pretty standard configuration for a North American daycab tractor. It looks longer because there so much open space behind the cab. Sitting right between the steer tires and the drive wheels are nine battery packs with 733 kWh capacity (three on either side outside the frame rails and three more between the frame rails.)
The standard wheelbase for a Tre 4x2 diesel tractor in Europe is just 149 inches (165 inches for a 6x4). Nikola added a few inches to accommodate the modular battery packs. The cab, which is actually a standard single sleeper cab in Europe, wouldn’t be tolerated by drivers here, used to 60-plus inches of off-duty space. In Nikola’s demo trucks, the space at the rear of the cab is a bench seat. It could be used as a sleeper in a pinch, I suppose.
However, Nikola has said a truck sleeper cab is forthcoming on the long-haul fuel-cell version of the Tre.
The cab sits on four dampened air springs, which were carefully tuned for stability, stiffness and ride comfort. The front axle is a three-leaf taper spring. The rear suspension is an innovative eight-bag air-ride affair. Disc brakes live at all wheel positions.
Under the cab sit all the electronics and electrical hardware, convertors, invertors, coolers, etc. It’s a really tight packaging job, but at least engineers had a flat-floor cab to work with, rather than the engine-tunnel designs of yesteryear. (Drivers called that tunnel the doghouse. It was a great place to lay for a nap, but it made getting around the sleeper a real pain.)
If you did the math from back in the first paragraph of this story, you’d conclude there’s almost 7 feet of space between the floor and the ceiling in the Tre. You can stand up and walk around in the thing.
The seats are huge and extraordinarily comfortable, and generally the look and feel of the interior is pure premium. There’s a header panel above the driver with a few storage spots and the ubiquitous coffee cup holders below the dash with a bit more storage there. It is, after all, a pretty long reach over to the glove compartment.
The doors open wider than most conventional trucks, and the side windows are enormous. And of course, it’s extraordinarily quiet inside, thanks to the absence of a diesel engine. Tire and geartrain noise was non-existent, but there was some wind noise, and the air conditioning fans and even the electrical system cooling fans were audible. I should say, the cooling fans had a low hum to them, not the howl we associate with cooling fans on diesel trucks.
There’s not a whole lot to say about driving the Tre on a highway, except that it’s exceptionally smooth and really quiet, as you’d expect. But there’s a whole other story to tell about its maneuvering capabilities, and the amazingly tuned steering and throttle pedal response. (Can we still call it a throttle pedal? Let’s call it the accelerator pedal.)
This will make some people crazy, but I liken it to the feel of the old mechanical 3406 Caterpillar diesels for throttle response. There was nothing finer, in my opinion. On a previous short drive I had at Nikola’s Coolidge manufacturing plant last summer, an engineer told me they spent a great deal of time on the pedal mapping for the Tre. The power rolls on very smoothly and it’s very responsive. If you’re smooth on the pedal, it will treat you nicely.
That engineer said it was one of the best trucks he’d driven for backing under trailers and into loading docks. His words, not mine. I didn’t have the opportunity to do either on that drive or the Orlando drive. Judging by the way it accelerated, I’d be inclined to believe him. Just the slightest pressure on the pedal got the truck moving, but it only went as a fast as I pushed the pedal down. Articulate would be a good word to describe the pedal feel. Just like those old Cats.
Since the seating position is just ahead of the steer axle hub, you’re actually out in front of the wheels, leading the turn rather than following — a bit like a bus. And it’s got a pretty dramatic steering cut; it turns on a dime. Drivers will be pleasantly surprised at how tight it turns and how surefooted it feels in a corner, even at speed.
While I wouldn’t call myself an expert on steering feel in electric trucks, I’ve driven a couple I wasn’t really happy with. Those trucks didn’t seem to have the “feel” of a hydraulic system. All vehicles rely to a certain extent on positive caster to help with the centering effect. Some electric systems seem to rely more on sensors and motors to return the wheels to center after a turn. It just doesn’t feel the same.
The Tre’s steering, while electric and no doubt also relying on sensors and motors for centering, has a more familiar mechanical feel to it. That’s one way of saying the engineers got that part right. And that’s important since drivers spend a lot of time steering their trucks.
Tre's BEV Performance
I bobtailed around Orlando with the Tre, so honestly, I can’t say anything meaningful about its performance. It was more like driving a car than a truck, but the brief drive would have more than whet the appetite of any fleet manager who secured a ride on the truck at TMC.
Its car-like feel actually worries me a bit. Back in my day as a driver, when you had to coax and cajole a truck up through 10 or 13 gears to reach highway speed, you had some sense of what it took to get 80,000 pounds up to highway speed. That kind of disappeared with automated manual transmissions, and it’s all but gone with electric powertrains, thanks to the gobs of torque available at even a few dozen rpm.
While on my Coolidge drive, one of the engineers told me a stock Tre can do 0-60 mph in 35 seconds — fully loaded. Put another way, it can maintain 55 mph on a 5-6% grade. You’ve all probably seen the Tre tire burn-out videos on YouTube. No fleet manager in the world would buy a truck because it can do 0-60 in half a minute. That’s why Nikola’s engineers are working on ways to modulate torque so drivers can’t do that. It’s all in the pedal mapping.
The Tre’s two motors can deliver up to 645 hp to the wheels. The torque numbers aren’t published, but they would be well north of 2,000 lb-ft at any rpm. That’s more than enough to burn through 26/32 of tire tread in just a few weeks if not corralled properly.
The other side to all that get-up-and-go is the Tre’s notable retarding power. It has a six-position regen braking retarder control on the steering column, like most of today’s AMT shifter stalks. With a bit of practice, a diligent driver can motor around town hardly ever using the service brakes except to hold the truck stopped. I would say that skill will become the modern equivalent of the smooth-shifting diesel jockey we once revered.
While on my Coolidge drive, discussing facets of the truck with my engineer/tour guides, one of them said during testing on the 11-mile, 5% grade at Davis Dam near Bullhead City, Arizona, the test-Tre managed the entire descent, fully loaded at 82,000 pounds, using only regen braking.
I tried a few stops on my own during that drive, pulling a loaded dry van trailer. In the number 6 position, the retarding capability was noteworthy. I tried it, too, while bobtailing around Orlando. The driver can modulate the pedal so that even while in max retarding, it behaves like it’s at a lower setting. Again, drivers will figure this out, and the trip reports will show which drivers are doing it best, thus extending the truck’s range or minimizing energy consumption.
Nikola Demos PlusDrive
While the Tre is equipped with its own advanced safety systems, such as lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking, and front and rear cameras, Nikola also will offer the PlusDrive next-generation safety system developed by Plus. The planned start date is late in 2024.
PlusDrive is powered by Plus’ artificial-intelligence learnings, used in fully autonomous applications. It’s predictive rather than reactive, relying on its ability to predict what’s about to happen. In other words, rather than using data from a camera and radar (sensor fusion) to alert the system to a closing space cushion, PlusDrive makes data-driven decisions on the likelihood of another driver’s behavior and takes steps before the situation actually occurs.
“PlusDrive is more sophisticated than the current state-of-the-art ADAS systems in the sense that we just don't only react to the lead vehicle. We take into consideration everything that is going on around us,” said Amit Kumar, general manager at PlusDrive and VP of engineering at Plus. “We predict the motions of the other vehicle and then come up with the most optimized accel/decel values.”
Kumar said the AI behind PlusDrive is based on the data Plus collected and used to train its fully autonomous models.
“If you take something like lateral movement within a lane, with a large amount of data, you can really accurately predict if somebody is really coming into your lane, or if it’s just a normal movement within the lane,” he told HDT in an interview. “That’s where the AI algorithms are pretty good.”
Being a Level-2 autonomous system, PlusDrive delivers active lane centering as well as predictive acceleration and deceleration all the way down to zero mph. The driver is required to keep their hands on the wheel at all times and remain focused on the road. A driver-facing camera can detect head and eye position and determine if, for example, a driver is looking at a mobile device or making routine mirror checks and looking at the dash for system monitoring.
Nikola Tre Final Thoughts
That was a rather long report based on less than two hours of actual driving. But there’s a lot going on with the Tre. It’s a COE design, which is worthy of mention of course. It seems at this early stage to be every bit as good as its legacy competitors (time will tell if it lives up to the million-mile benchmark).
Evaluating electric drivetrains is new territory for me. I understand diesel torque curves and gear ratios and how to predict performance and drivability. I’m still learning about electric systems.
Of course, the 800-lb gorilla is the weight of the truck. Nikola hasn’t published a number yet, and the other OEMs are reluctant to discuss the weight of their battery-electric trucks. I have seen the chassis weight stickers on a few Class 8 BEVs, and the “typical” weight for a day cab with about 350-400 kWh batteries is about 22,000 lb.
The Tre, with almost double the battery capacity (733 kWh) is heavier, naturally. I was told by a prospective Nikola Tre customer the weight was close to 29,000 lb. I later confirmed that with Nikola. The company says it may offer a smaller pack in the future, but for now, everything ships with the full complement of batteries.
The driver environment is second to none, in terms of visibility, usability and comfort. I like the COE design, and I really like Tre’s European heritage. They know how to build a cabover. Drivers will be amazed by its maneuverability. And a big plus: Reversing a full-width COE means just poking your head out the window. No more craning your neck to see around the sleeper.
I’m anxious to get out on a full test drive with a loaded trailer and do some real-world evaluations of the truck. I can say at this point, Tre looks really promising.