There's nothing ordinary about the Nikola Two, the first Class 8 tractor unveiled by Nikola Motors on April 16. It has 10 tires and disc brakes, but that's where the similarities to existing Class 8 tractors end. Nikola Motor Company CEO Trevor Milton is quick to point out that this truck is not a diesel conversion, but something brand new from the ground up.
"We had to build this truck differently, not just to be different, but because we found we couldn't make it work within the framework of existing diesel platforms," he said. "This truck will be competing with diesels and it will have to be better than diesels, so we knew we would have to completely redesign it."
The styling cues for the exterior came from Japanese bullet trains, said Steve Jennes, Nikola’s Chief Designer. "When I first started drawing this truck, I wanted a clean, simple profile with an impactful stance," he said. "The early drawings resembled the trains I had ridden on in Europe and Asia when I was younger, where you could travel at 180 mph in complete silence and safety."
While Nikola did not provide any numbers or context to back up its claims of aerodynamic superiority, the truck certainly looks slippery enough. Even though the motive power is supplied by zero-emissions hydrogen, energy conservation remains an important consideration, Milton noted.
Power comes from hydrogen fuel-cell stacks developed by Nikola in partnership with Bosch that are designed to deliver extended vehicle range. The potential energy stored in the truck's 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of hydrogen yields 3 mega-watt/hours of electricity. Milton said 30,000 pounds of lithium batteries would be required to store the same amount of energy.
"By comparison, the current version of the Tesla Semi has 1.2 mW/hr of onboard energy storage," Milton said. "That’s one-third the energy storage we offer, and that's a big weakness when it comes to the distance that truck can travel."
Bosch and Nikola also worked in tandem to develop the first true dual-motor commercial-vehicle eAxle for a long-haul truck. The eAxle features Bosch rotors and stators.
"We built this truck with 1,000 horsepower per drive axle, that means with a 6x4 configuration it could have up to 2,000 horsepower," Milton said. "We expect about 90% of the fleets in America will order this with just one drive axle. You'll save somewhere around 2,000 pounds by eliminating one set of drive motors and the gearing."
Each of the 450 kW motors on the axle(s) produce up to 500 hp and 2,000 lb-ft of torque.
"This truck had to be both zero emissions and high performance," said Milton. "If you're just zero emissions but less performance, like the other fuel-cell trucks, nobody will buy them unless they are running out of a port or some other limited area. And on top of that, if the cost of ownership is too high, again, nobody will buy them. This is the only semi that can beat a diesel in every category."
But the Nikola truck is more than just a fuel cell vehicle; it’s a rolling super computer. One of the key elements of Nikola’s advanced system is the Bosch Vehicle Control Unit, which provides higher computing power for advanced functions while reducing the number of standalone units.
"The entire infotainment system is a HTML 5 super computer," Milton said. "That's the standard language for computer programmers around the world, so using it let's us build our own chips. And HTML 5 is very secure. Every component is linked on the data network, all speaking the same language. It's not a bunch of separate systems that somehow still manage to communicate."
The VCU will enable future innovations by providing a scalable platform for the highly complex electric/electronic (E/E) architecture needed to support the advanced features of the Nikola truck. According to Bosch, the Nikola family of trucks will be connected with an advanced and secure operating system that provides real-time, over-the-air updates and monitoring.
Bosch also provides a camera-based mirror system, co-developed with Mekra Lang, known as the Mirror Cam System. It will replace conventional main and wide-angle mirrors and will provide drivers with a digital side and rear view from the truck cab. Two cameras, fitted left and right in place of traditional mirrors, feed real-time images to high-resolution displays mounted inside the cab. Aside from the aero benefits of dispensing with the large external mirrors, the Mirror Cam system offers enhanced night vision, glare reduction, and several driver assistance features.
"This technology is a good fit with what the Nikola teams wants to do with the truck in terms of reducing the drag coefficient of external traditional mirrors and improving safety," said Jason Roycht, vice president of commercial vehicles for Bosch in North America. "Current trucks have multiple mirrors, but with these cameras and software we can stitch images together for enhanced views. We can enhance the image on the screen for increased clarity and we can even add colors to the displays; red for example, to increase the noticeability of possible threat subjects."
Fleet operators will be able to digitally manage vehicle keys for the Nikola trucks thanks to the Perfectly Keyless system, also from Bosch. Freight and commercial vehicle rental companies can use a smartphone app to give their drivers access to specific fleet vehicles and to flexibly manage who has access and when. Sensors on the Nikola vehicles will connect with an app on a driver’s smartphone so that when the driver approaches the vehicle, Perfectly Keyless recognizes the smartphone, identifies the unique security key assigned to the driver’s phone, and unlocks the door. As soon as the driver moves away from the truck again, the vehicle is automatically locked securely.
Bosch's other significant contribution to the Nikola truck is the Servotwin electrohydraulic steering system. The steering system will enable driver assistance systems that actively support the driver to enhance driving comfort and improve safety. On the Nikola vehicles, the Servotwin will help to enable such features as lane-keeping assistance, side-wind compensation, and traffic jam assist. The system also provides a key building block for the rollout of automated features in the future.
When drivers finally get to climb aboard a Nikola truck, they won’t suffer. The demo truck on display at April’s Nikola World event featured a leather and suede interior (they made visitors put on rubber gloves before entering the truck for a tour), rather than the "horrible plastic interiors" they have now, said Jennes. "The idea was to build something so beautiful that drivers will really want to drive it."
The truck features independent front suspension, disc brakes, a wrap-around windshield, and doors located behind the seat. A set of steps auto-deploys when the driver approaches the truck and retracts once he or she is on-board. That's keep the DOT guys from hanging off the mirrors during a roadside inspection.
The entire dash is electronic, with a 21-inch, 4K display in the middle and a 13-inch display in front of the driver. The truck uses voice-activated controls rather than pushing buttons and reaching for various controls to help maintain a driver's focus on the driving task.
And while the truck displayed was the day-cab version, Milton said the Nikola 1 sleeper cab is being developed simultaneously and will go into production at the same time.
"It will be identical to the Nikola 2, we just have to extend the back wall," he said. "All the systems and tooling will be exactly the same for both trucks. The sleeper will offer a queen-sized bed, desk, office chairs, and more."