Automotive

For real? Startup talks 2,000-hp turbine-hybrid big rig and 520-hp UTV

For real? Startup talks 2,000-...
The One Semi has a large, aero-optimized driver's cab
The One Semi has a large, aero-optimized driver's cab
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The One Semi has a large, aero-optimized driver's cab
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The One Semi has a large, aero-optimized driver's cab
Nikola intends to give the One driver a fully modern digital dashboard
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Nikola intends to give the One driver a fully modern digital dashboard
The sleeper cab includes two beds, a refrigerator, microwave and TV
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The sleeper cab includes two beds, a refrigerator, microwave and TV
The One is Nikola's vision of a state-of-the-art range-extended electric semi truck
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The One is Nikola's vision of a state-of-the-art range-extended electric semi truck
A completely different type of EV, the Nikola Zero aims at off-road speed and fun
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A completely different type of EV, the Nikola Zero aims at off-road speed and fun
The side-by-side design includes an electric motor at each wheel for 520 hp
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The side-by-side design includes an electric motor at each wheel for 520 hp
The Zero has a special rear-wheel steering system
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The Zero has a special rear-wheel steering system
Nikola believes the Zero could do 0-60 mph in around 3 seconds
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Nikola believes the Zero could do 0-60 mph in around 3 seconds
The roof-mounted solar panels provide charging to the 12 V battery
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The roof-mounted solar panels provide charging to the 12 V battery
Nikola says it's readying a working Zero model
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Nikola says it's readying a working Zero model

If there was ever a time to dazzle the world with promises of futuristic electric car technologies and crazy performance estimates, it would be 2016. Already this year, we've seen a crop of unknown startups and established companies with little to no automotive experience pop up to tout new cutting edge electric and hybrid vehicles. There's been Faraday Future, and Techrules, and LeEco. We're nothing if not skeptical.

Given its overnight ascendance and off-the-charts claims, we're especially skeptical about the most recent member of the club, Salt Lake City-based Nikola Motor Company. We are, however, hopeful that its 2,000-hp turbine-extender semi truck and solar-assisted, all-electric side-by-side - or derivatives thereof - become reality.

Yes, there's a lot to be skeptical about when a company with a name so clearly inspired by another (as you probably remember, the electrical pioneer's full name was Nikola Tesla) pops out of nowhere, barrages the world with four press releases and brings nothing more to show-and-tell than an album of renderings and a list of obscene specs. In fact, if this had happened a month ago, we'd have sworn it was a late April Fool's joke.

But it's May, and the Nikola Motor Company doesn't appear to be laughing. In its great coming out of May 2016, it explains that it was quietly formed years ago by TrevorMilton, former CEOof natural gas storage tech company dHybridSystems. It intends to manufacture electric vehicles, EV drivetrains, vehicle components and energy storage systems. Oh, and it's already taking reservations for the vehicles that it hasn't actually revealed or demonstrated in any meaningful way.

So extra-skeptical is the only way to proceed.

That said, what Nikola proposes is highly intriguing, a dichotomous electric vehicle lineup that aims at adrenaline-spiking speed and adventure alongside a radical streamlining of the unglamorous drudgery that underpins our consumeristic existence. We're not sure which of the two vehicles is the most interesting, but we do know which one is the most practical and potentially far-reaching.

Nikola One Semi

The One is Nikola's vision of a state-of-the-art range-extended electric semi truck
The One is Nikola's vision of a state-of-the-art range-extended electric semi truck

Nikola's first order of business is to completely revolutionize commercial transport as we know it. As described on paper, its One semi truck features a 6x6 powertrain with a 335-hp electric motor and dual-gear reduction at every one of the six wheels. Some pretty easy math gets us just over 2,000 hp, to which Nikola adds an estimate of 3,700 lb.ft of torque before gear reduction and a twist-tacular 86,000 lb.ft after. The torque vectoring capabilities opened up by the six-motor setup and controlling software offer potential advantages in traction, cornering and stopping power.

Such a substantial all-electric drive system obviously requires some serious electricity, and Nikola calls for supplying it via a 30,000-cell 320 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which charges on the road via a proprietary onboard 536-hp (400-kW) range-extending turbine. Regenerative braking also helps out.

The sleeper cab includes two beds, a refrigerator, microwave and TV
The sleeper cab includes two beds, a refrigerator, microwave and TV

Nikola estimates a range of 1,200 miles (1,931 km), which, incidentally, is the very same estimate that China's Techrules gives for its version of a turbine-charged six-motor electric vehicle, albeit on the spec sheet of a 217-mph (350 km/h) supercar, not a Class 8 tractor trailer hauling a gross weight up to 80,000 lb (36,000 kg). Nikola's turbine can run on various fuels, including gas, diesel and natural gas, and Nikola believes its range-extended electric powertrain could cut fueling costs in half compared to the typical diesel engine.

The One design also features an independent suspension system based on a design from component manufacturer Meritor. Nikola promises that this system, which it calls the first independent suspension for a Class 8 vehicle, reduces vibrations and increases ride comfort.

The bright red cab has a lot of purported design going on, too. It's nicely dressed in carbon fiber panels and neatly manicured for improved aerodynamic performance. The driver hops aboard via a sliding mid-entry door and is treated to a rather cushy sleeper spread inside, complete with dual beds, a full-sizefridge/freezer, a microwave, a 42-in television and 4G LTE internet with Wi-Fi.

Nikola intends to give the One driver a fully modern digital dashboard
Nikola intends to give the One driver a fully modern digital dashboard

In terms of traditional driving features, the cab design has a large, panoramic windshield, 10-in digital instrument cluster, 15-in infotainment touchscreen, electric climate control and OTA software updates. While the One won't be an autonomous big rig straight away, Nikola suggests that an autonomous package could be a few years down the line.

Of course, Nikola will have to show an actual truck first. It claims that it's designed and engineered the One and has now moved on to finalizing the construction of the first prototype. Really trusting folks that want to drop US$1,500 based on a nice press release and set of renderings can reserve their One semis straight away. Nikola estimates pricing of between $350,000 and $415,000 and offers a fuel incentive on the first 5,000 trucks reserved.

Zero Side-by-Side

A completely different type of EV, the Nikola Zero aims at off-road speed and fun
A completely different type of EV, the Nikola Zero aims at off-road speed and fun

Now we travel to the polar opposite end of the motoring spectrum, to a recreational side-by-side concept that's very nearly as wild and out there as the semi truck we just looked at. Like the One, the Nikola Zero UTV is all about all-wheel electric driving, electric motors at each wheel combining for a total output of 520 hp. Those four motors are fed by a 400-volt 50 kWhlithium-ion battery pack, which offers a claimed range around 100 to 150 miles (161 to 241 km). All that electrical equipment is said to be sealed up so you can ride through the water without any worries.

That 520-hp figure won't make a modern sports car enthusiast blink, but it's pretty insane for a light, open-bodied UTV – some engines currently vying for the "top power in the industry" title include the 144-hp Polaris ProStar Turbo and the 131-hp BRP Rotax 1000R Turbo engine originally launched on the 2015 Can-Am Maverick X ds Turbo (in 121-hp tune). So Nikola wants to put roughly that same level of industry-leading power at every wheel to make the Zero the "most powerful production model UTV ever built" (or rendered, anyway).

All that power equates to supercar levels of acceleration, with Nikola claiming a 0-60 mph (96.5 km/h) of around 3 seconds (the 2016 Polaris RZR XP Turbo EPS with that 144-hp turbo takes 5.89 seconds to do that deed). We're guessing you'll have to be on smooth ground for that 3 seconds to work out, but dirt and rock won't slow you down too much with 20 inches (51 cm) of front and rear suspension feasting on the bumps and craters.

The Zero has a special rear-wheel steering system
The Zero has a special rear-wheel steering system

The Zero isn't all unbridled power and speed; it's also tuned for superior rock crawling and low-speed maneuverability. A rear steer-by-wire system complements the power front steering, giving the rear wheels between 5 and 10 degrees of movement at lower speeds for tighter turning and locking them straight at 20 mph (32 km/h). Rear-wheel steering is a feature that's been gaining some traction in the sports car market, and Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini have all introduced systems on select models.

Vectoring of the Zero's 480 lb.ft of torque doesn't hurt maneuverability, either.

Inside the Zero cockpit, Nikola imagines a digital command center with a single 10-in display and dual 7-in displays furnishing the driver with critical information. The UTV is connected via 4GLTE and includes an accompanying app that allows users to set up different profiles with speed and distance adjustments, something that's designed largely for parents looking to control how far and fast children ride.

The roof-mounted solar panels provide charging to the 12 V battery
The roof-mounted solar panels provide charging to the 12 V battery

The Zero is designed with dual 300-watt solar panels on its roof. Those panels are not for the main drive system battery but for the secondary 360Ah 12 V lithium battery running equipment like lights, front and rear 3,500-lb winches,touchscreens, and 110- and12-volt outlets. The solar charging helps keep that electrical equipment from having to pull energy from the 50 kWh drive battery.

Nikola uses the verbatim "designed,engineered andfinalizingassembly" line for the Zero that it does for the One, which doesn't help build confidence. It is accepting $750 reservations for the $42,000 Zero, promising a $5,000 discount on the first 5,000 models reserved. It plans to offer the model with the option of an onboard compressor system for on-demand pressure adjustment of the 32-in radial tires.

Nikola has some really interesting ideas and we hope to be taking a closer look at its products later this year, when it says it'll debut its first prototypes. We'd even settle for next year, or five years from now, or "sometime."

Until then, those ideas will feel like they came from a brainstorming session entitled "What Would Be Awesome..." and not so much from the work of a design and engineering team (though Nikola does mention having worked on the Zero with well-known Michigan automotive engineering firm Pratt & Miller). We'll see ... or maybe we won't.

Source: Nikola Motor Company

11 comments
VincentWolf
It's about time that trucks adopted a locomotive drive train which this is--it's electric powered fueled by a turbo engine similar to trains with diesels (dirty ones). But I see this gradually jumping to mostly battery powered because when batteries become 10 times as dense by weight then it's competitive with any hydrocarbon based fuel using mostly the sun to charge (battery swapping will be used).
guzmanchinky
I agree with the skepticism, however, knowing a thing or two about semi trucks, and owning a couple of UTV's, the concepts and what they would do for either vehicle category are very cool...
zr2s10
I think the Semi-truck could be a great thing, especially if it really cuts fuel usage in half. Locomotives are almost all hybrid diesels these day for a reason. The SxS, I'm not really interested in. First off, that much power is almost unusable off-road. You'd be digging a hole to China on soft ground in 3 seconds, not hitting 60 mph. And the solar panel would be destroyed by anyone that runs anywhere other than dunes. Fuel consumption isn't as much of a concern on UTVs and ATVs as it used to be, with the proliferation of fuel injection. I can ride all day in my Ranger 500, and not use half a tank. Granted, a RZR 1000 turbo will burn through more, but still, rarely an issue. Finally, UTVs without that "braaaaaaap!!" are just not going to be fun! There's no need to be Harley loud, but a decent exhaust note just hits you at the core...
-dphiBbydt
Wrightspeed of San Jose already have their turbine extender electric propulsion vehicles on the market (see http://www.wrightspeed.com/the-route-powertrain ) . Not quite as sexy-looking as these big rig cabs but still a practical solution to stop-start, around town, medium-size delivery trucks. Every now and again I pass one of the Isuzu trucks on the street - the turbine sound is unmistakable. Big rigs, for the most part, drive long distances for hours on end - far beyond the range of even the most optimistic battery technology - so most of their propulsion will still be fossil-fuel based. Still, in town, electric drive would be a plus and out on the open road, decoupling fuel burning from directly driving the wheels would allow for much more efficient fuel usage.
Ray_Diminco
Honestly I would be happy with a traditional hybrid semi truck. If it had 500 horsepower, was plug-in and had a range of 28 electric only miles. Long haul truckers have to shut down for 10 hours every 11 hours of driving. Plenty of time to recharge the battery. Every time I slow down I use the Jake brake. A technology that basically turns the diesel engine into an air compressor. Depending on the rpm the engine can produce up to 400 braking horsepower. Or about 300 000 watts. It takes roughly 12 minutes to go down an average mountain pass, that is a lot of energy! Probably enough to recharge the battery! Throughout the day I use the engine brake hundreds of times and sometimes, thousands of times. All wasted energy. I just want a Prius equivalent in a semi truck. It would get 10 to 12 mpg. Where the average now is 6.5 mpg. But realistically most trucks get 5.5 to 6 mpg due to the new emissions controls. While at the same time burning hundred of gallons of DEF per week into addition to diesel fuel. We desperately need a hybrid semi truck.
mindstorm8191
This is kind of a response to Ray_Diminco's comment. The problem with today's batteries is that you can't charge them rapidly. All these ideas of dumping wasted energy into battery storage are lovely ideas - but just not possible (with today's batteries, at least). But perhaps there are other ways to store energy. My idea would be to use that energy to fill up a tank with compressed air, probably from regenerative brakes. Great care would have to be taken to make sure the tank doesn't get too full. But once filled, the tank could be drained slowly to either recharge batteries or add power to take off again. But I'm no engineer, so I don't know how much size & weight that would require for it to become useful; it might be much worse than a large battery pack.
Kpar
Mindstorm, Ford Motor Company was experimenting some ten years ago with a dual chamber hydraulic system. A drive motor connected to the drivetrain pumped hydraulic oil from one chamber to the other- compressing the air (or other gas) in that tank whenever the brakes were applied. There was a flexible bag in the "receiving" tank to keep the air and oil separate. When accelerating, the system would reverse, and provide additional energy back through the drivetrain. I have heard that UPS has installed this system on several delivery trucks in its fleet, but nothing more than that.
Stephen N Russell
Check out Luigi Colani truck designs, from 80s BUT very current for today to use for same market.
Craig Jennings
Something - electric would be nice. But apart from flexibility of fuel why would you want a gas turbine? They're also smaller? Hardly a problem with a truck. Diseasal engines are more efficient and so is mechanically linking that energy to the wheels (at least at a constant speed). Love to see the math done on all the comparisons.
Bruce H. Anderson
Batteries = weight. So part of the goal here is the Goldilocks formula; just right. Semis have a GVW limit, and are paid to haul freight, not fuel. I can see batteries for in town, and a boost on hills. On the road where the load is more steady-state the turbine genset can supply enough power. The key will be controls for electrical management, and finding the right generator. I recall that Volvo tried a turbo-electric on a sedan a few decades back.