Zero-emission truck start up Nikola has begun building prototypes of its heavy-duty battery-electric model in Germany and is set to break  ground on a plant in the USA in the next two months.

At the same time  the company announced it believes its longhaul models operating autonomously if necessary.

Nikola says it will build and sell the battery-electric trucks in Europe, exporting some back to the U.S. market, with full series production set to begin next year (2021).

The company’s hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks which will be aimed at the long haul market will follow and will be built in both Europe and the USA.

Nikola has announced it will be using equity partner, Iveco’s S-Way platform as the basis for its trucks. Iveco currently markets the S-Way model with either a diesel or natural gas engine.

Nikola CEO Mark Russell told an online presentation at the Deutsche Bank Global Auto Industry Conference last week (June 10)  that the Iveco S-Way is most recently designed heavy-duty diesel truck platform that to be introduced in the world, having made its debut in Europe in July 2019.

“There’s not too many more people who are going to introduce diesel vehicles in the future and that may be one of the last ones,” Russell told the conference.

Russell said no actual orders have been taken yet for the Nikola Tre, the battery-electric model with a claimed range of 500km, but  added that the company will be taking orders.

Russell noted that discussions with potential customers for the Tre model have focused on thousands of preorders with binding contracts, with significant deposits 12 months prior to delivery.

“What’s new about Nikola’s adaptation of the S-Way is the electronics, the software, control systems and especially the batteries, the fuel cell, e-axles and drivetrain. That’s the secret sauce,” Russell said.

Nikola’s new  USA plant will be located  in Coolidge, Arizona, and  will be able to build on the same line as both the Nikola Tre and its eventual heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell model, he said.

Production of the hydrogen fuel cell long haul truck is scheduled to commence in 2023 but is dependent on creating the necessary hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.

“When you are making hydrogen for fueling stations out of water, using electrolysis, up to 90 per cent of the cost is a function of the cost of electricity that serves as a catalyst, Russell said.

“If we can get 2-cent electricity we can probably make hydrogen for $2 a kilo cash cost. A kilo of hydrogen has about the same energy equivalent as around four litres (one US gallon)of diesel fuel.,” he added.

Diesel fuel currently costs around $US3 ($AUD4.30) a gallon in  the USA , which equates to around $AUD1.14 a litre in our terms.

“ So $US2 a gallon is a pretty good price, it’s more complex than this of course but that’s the basic maths of how it works,” Russell said. “That is competitive with diesel and it gives us the confidence to go to the market with a bundled lease.”

Under Nikola’s lease plan available only with a hydrogen fuel cell truck  a fleet will pay a set monthly price over seven years or 1.1 million km (700,000 miles) for the truck, all its fuel and any necessary service.

Nikola’s plan aims to attract fleets operating on dedicated routes and it will place its hydrogen fueling stations on each end of such routes. Its hydrogen fuel cell truck will have a range up to 1200km(750miles). The hydrogen fueling stations will also provide charging stations for battery-electric vehicles and be open to the public.

Nikola stopped taking orders for the fuel cell truck after receiving 14,602 reservations, meaning the first few years of planned production are sold out.

All of the new Nikola vehicles will come equipped  with automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping technology, integrated telematics and fleet management solutions with data capturing, and the capability of receiving over-the-air software updates.

“We are designing these trucks so they will be autonomous capable. The first generation will not be autonomous, but will have the hardware to [SAE] Level 4 so that when autonomous software catches up and regulations get to where they need to be, we will be able to make these trucks autonomous very seamlessly,” Russell said.