The fuel cell truck is on the road—and with
MAHLE, it really goes far
Often, obvious solutions are identified early on, yet they need the right time and the right achievers to actually implement them. At the age of six, Trevor Milton, CEO of Nikola Motor Company, decided that one day, he would build the fuel cell truck. Nikola was the first to successfully accomplish this mission, together with MAHLE as a systems specialist for thermal management. Trevor Milton and Matthias Fix, Vice President Sales and Application Engineering Commercial Vehicles at MAHLE, talk about trust and a common goal.
Nikola Motor Company is an American hybrid truck development company in Phoenix, Arizona / USA. Founded in 2012 by Trevor Milton, the young start-up is deemed to be a pioneer in the field of electric high-performance applications in the transport sector. For the Nikola Two and Nikola Tre fuel cell trucks, MAHLE supports Nikola Motor Company with its thermal management systems expertise. MAHLE is the development partner and supplier for the truck’s entire cooling and air conditioning system.
Nikola Two covers 1,000 kilometers — on one tank.
11:00. The Nikola Motor Company headquarters in Phoenix. The sun is high in a brilliant blue sky, and palm leaves stir in the breeze. The truck leaves the yard and threads its way to the West Coast on the five-lane highway.
Phoenix, Arizona / USA. The large hall looks like the typical start-up garage culture has simply been transposed into a much bigger dimension. Employees sit behind computers at scattered desk clusters. These are interspersed with couches, a barbecue grill, partitions with electric circuit modules, workbenches, and garden tents converted into conference rooms. On a banner stretched across the hall, it reads “Dirty has never been so clean.” This is where their hands actually get dirty — for a very clean cause. In the midst of all this, a dog bounds up to two men. They are Trevor Milton and Matthias Fix. “He belongs to the family,” says Matthias Fix and greets the dog. Evidence that MAHLE also belongs to a special team that has been resolutely pursuing a major goal over the past few years — to bring the first fuel cell truck onto the market. While the truck is taking a test drive to Los Angeles, Trevor Milton and Matthias Fix jointly take stock, looking to the past once again and then far ahead to the future.
Nikola Two accelerates twice as fast as a diesel truck.
11:25. Left on the fast lane to pass another truck. Palm trees and taco bars are replaced by scrub and wide open spaces along the roadside.
The fuel cell truck is on the road. This is an exclamation mark for the use of fuel cells in long-distance hauling. What makes the fuel cell superior to the battery?
»If you can bring innovation and perfection together, you can do something really incredible. And this is what we have achieved.«
Trevor Milton: Well, to begin with, there are clearly advantages to every type of technology out there. The fuel cell is not the solution for everything, neither is the battery. They both have a place in the industry.
Matthias Fix: It’s important to differentiate the various applications before we talk about superiority. Regarding the commercial vehicle, these applications can be inner-city distribution, regional, or long haul. The farther you want to go, the bigger the battery needs to be.
Trevor: But it’s not smart carrying a huge battery mass with you, which doesn’t leave room for any goods. This is where the fuel cell comes into play.
Matthias: Commercial vehicles have to carry a lot of goods, they hold a lot of weight, and they happen to deal with different climatic conditions.
But batteries are rather heavy and they need space and a comfortable temperature range in order to function properly, to mention only a few challenges. That simply makes the battery an inferior solution for long haul.
Trevor: We still need a battery for our truck, but the fuel cell makes the difference here as the primary source of energy. With a much better outcome.
Matthias: In this case, you need a much smaller battery, and a smaller battery means less weight and more space for goods.
Trevor: This is the key for the fuel cell to lead the way to better mobility. It delivers more efficiency, zero emissions, long capacities, low cost of operation, and instant torque power, while solving social and environmental problems. It’s really the ultimate fit for technology.
Driving long distances is one of the key questions in the e-mobility universe. You are setting new standards and traveling farther with the fuel cell than everybody else: How far does it go?
Matthias: The question is not only how far the truck goes. It’s about how far the whole project is going. Trevor, you have a unique take on this as you are providing the infrastructure for the refueling stations as well. It’s another key topic to make this technology a success.
Trevor: Absolutely, this is why many have not succeeded yet. It’s a typical chicken-and-egg problem.
Matthias: You need both to make it work.
Trevor: For us, this means that it’s not enough to only build a truck. We also have to strategically build hydrogen stations on those roads where the trucks are sold. And this is what we’re doing. We produce our own hydrogen, and the fuel cost comes included with the truck purchase, so you don’t have the
instability of fuel prices and network issues. We solve the entire problem at once.
Matthias: This is very important actually, in terms of our MAHLE strategy as well: pushing zero-emission technologies. With this project, we really go well to wheel. You’re taking care of refueling stations and how the energy is made available. It’s renewable energy! This means that the operation of the truck is completely emission-free at the end of the day.
Trevor: We have these huge wind farms all along the roads here. Each day we experience peaks, when there’s too much energy on the grid to be used. This is what we’re doing now: we store this energy and generate hydrogen from it to use for our trucks.
»How far can the whole fuel cell project go? That’s what unites us with Nikola —thinking about the bigger picture.«
Nikola is ahead of its time with the fuel cell in every way. When did the idea of building a fuel cell truck come up in the first place?
Nikola Two is 10 tons lighter than a comparable diesel.
13:35. The flowers at the roadside are the same yellow as the road markings. The next exit is called “Centennial,” marking a period of 100 years. Nicola Two continues straight ahead.
Trevor: That story goes back to my dad, who was the manager of the railroad. When I was a little boy, I would sit right next to the conductor who drove the locomotive. He would look over and see the trucks on the road as we were driving parallel to the freeways and say: One day they’ll be smart enough to build the locomotive semitruck. That was the beginning — when I was six years old. Today, it’s still the same picture on the roads, but with one big difference: our truck is out there too. And soon there will be so much more to get excited about.
Matthias: We’re really moving forward at high speed. And this fits nicely with us at MAHLE. We want to build the path for future mobility. It’s a crucial project for us to demonstrate this and prove our expertise. How long have we been working together now? Two years, right?
Trevor: Two years, yes.
Matthias: But it feels like we’ve had this partnership for much longer. You have an ambitious target, Trevor. And we have one of the key competences to achieve this target: thermal management. Together, we’re making this happen.
Trevor: This partnership is very beneficial to both sides. Here at Nikola, we designed a truck that has never been built before. We went through multiple adjustments refining the entire thermo system. And MAHLE was able to handle this. You’re the experts. We’re the ones who try a lot of things and are not afraid to fail, which leads to great open discussions with you.
Matthias: Yes, this is what we provide — almost a hundred years of experience and the know-how to bring this high-volume production together, with the innovative spirit of Nikola. This is the collaboration. I appreciated your wording earlier, Trevor — combine perfect German engineering ...
Trevor: ... with the innovation strength of American companies.
Matthias: This combination has made the truck a successful product.
Trevor: This is what it takes. It’s important to know what we’re good at, and we know what MAHLE is good at. It is your philosophy to deliver a perfect solution and to have zero failure.
The 1,000 hp Nikola Two truck cruises along the roads.
16:00. The truck proceeds along Interstate 10. In the fields, wind turbines rotate vigorously in the wind.
Talking about combining two worlds, Nikola Two was built for the American market, and Nikola Tre for the European market. The designs are different. Are there any other differences?
Trevor: European trucks cover half the range of US trucks. They don’t need a range of 1,000 kilometers per day, just 500 kilometers or less is enough. The main difference is more of an aesthetic nature. Ultimately, they have the exact same technology.
Matthias: The objective of the truck is the same everywhere: we want to reduce CO2 emissions.
Trevor: Around 30 percent of global emissions stem from transportation. It’s the single biggest source of emissions. With our truck, we’ll be taking a bigger chunk out of the emissions production than any other product in the world. Therefore, our goal is simple: we want to build as many as we can.
As more and more commercial vehicles are needed, it’s about time for the fuel cell to complement the internal combustion engine for long haul. When will this happen?
Trevor: Well, it begins now. The first test trucks are on the road, and we start series production in 2022. European production will probably begin in 2023. The same applies for the refueling stations. We’re building over 700 hydrogen stations in America over the next ten years and planning to do the same in Europe. It will be the largest network of hydrogen stations in the world.
Matthias: And again, there is not just one solution. We are convinced that the future lies in the powertrain mix. Inner cities might have different solutions, such as more battery vehicles. Long-distance transportation, where higher energy is needed, lends itself more to fuel cells. And there will still be a market for diesel engines for quite some time. So, the ultimate question of whether and when the fuel cell will take over long-haul transportation, I think, is really hard to predict. But changes are chances. The fuel cell truck can gain significant momentum. We are ready, and this project is a great start.
Trevor: Yes, and, for now, we are just focusing on getting this done and getting our two trucks on the road around the world. Once this is achieved, I mean, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you want with fuel cells. You can go into other modes of transportation — even into aerospace.
Matthias: MAHLE and Nikola — if you can think it, you can do it.
Trevor: So let’s do it!
»We combine perfect German engineering and American innovation strength.«
Nikola Two is fully fueled up in just 20 minutes.
18:00. Arrival at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. A man on the beach plays guitar and sings “Breathe this air.” The sun is shining. A quick call to Nikola in Phoenix. “What about the tank?” Trevor Milton wants to know. The answer: “Still half full.”
»We have one objective with this truck: zero CO2 emissions.«
And let’s not forget ...
... all the many other product solutions, projects, and initiatives that we delivered, initiated, and drove forward in 2018. Here are some highlights.
CNG / LNG drives for commercial vehicles
Both the CNG (compressed natural gas) and the LNG (liquefied natural gas) versions of natural gas powertrains for commercial vehicles offer substantial CO2 savings potential. Simply replacing fossil diesel fuel with fossil natural gas reduces CO2 emissions by 15 percent. If synthetic methane from renewable power is used, engine operation is actually CO2 neutral. The switch to gaseous fuels, however, presents us with new challenges. For gas-powered drives, these include increased exhaust gas temperatures. To address this, MAHLE provides crucial technologies to enable cooled exhaust gas recirculation. These reduce combustion temperatures, protect the engine components against thermal damage, while preventing premature ignition in the cylinder, also known as “knocking.”
HYBRID AND ELECTRIC DRIVES
In hybrid electric drives or purely electric drives, it all starts with the battery. This is the most important element in an electric vehicle, and many components contribute to it. MAHLE has expanded its extensive product portfolio to include solutions for the demand-based conditioning of temperature-sensitive traction batteries. These allow the cooling and heating architecture to be kept as simple as possible and ensure fast and efficient temperature regulation.