Elon Musk's world is digital. That applies to the vehicles, as well as to his opinion. There is only his view of things and the wrong one. While the Tesla boss referred to the fuel cells as "fool cells" (German "Doof-zellen" / corruption of the English term fuel cells), Nikola relies on this technology. Just like the states of Arizona and California, which are pushing the expansion of transport using fuel cells or hydrogen.
The boss of the Arizona-based start-up Nikola has only a slight smile for Musk's announcement. For Michael Lohscheller, fuel cell trucks are the next big thing in transportation. There are many reasons: On the one hand, the Nikola Tre FCEV can handle more payload than the electric variant, the range of 800 kilometers is around 300 kilometers longer and refueling is faster than is currently the case with current electric trucks . However, hydrogen is not an easy-to-handle fuel. The tank infrastructure is correspondingly complex and expensive. "First of all, we have to concentrate on individual routes," Michael Lohscheller makes clear. This also applies in Germany and Europe, where the truck is due to appear next year.
We put the Nikola Tre FCEV to the test. How far is the fuel cell vehicle that is supposed to come to Germany next year and we are surprised when we stand in front of the truck. There's that voluminous hiss! "As long as the ignition is on, the fuel cell charges the batteries," explains chief engineer Christian Appel. So that the hydrogen in the fuel cell can react with oxygen, a 20 kW compressor compresses the air at an incredible 100,000 revolutions per minute. Somehow reassuring that with all the high-tech there is also a piece of classic automotive technology on board. But it doesn't stop there, the principle of the fuel cell truck is reminiscent of that of a hybrid car. Because instead of nine battery modules with a total of 738 kilowatt hours in the European version of the fully electric Tre BEV truck, the Nikola Tre FCEV only has two packages with a capacity of 82 kWh each, i.e. a total of 164 kilowatt hours.
As in a hybrid vehicle, the two energy storage systems complement each other with the fuel cell in order to propel the 40-ton vehicle forward as efficiently as possible and with care for the components. “Fuel cells don't like overly dynamic load changes. That's why we use the battery when more power is needed quickly"; explains Christian Appel. The 35-year-old technician has moved to Arizona from Bosch, where he was already assigned higher positions. When asked why one leaves the comforting bosom of a large supplier for a start-up company, the man with the slightly Alemannic accent has a short but disarming answer: “Getting the fuel cell truck into production is the coolest thing what I've done in my life so far!"
There are indeed challenges. The interaction between the sensitive fuel cell, which generates 200 kW / 272 hp, and the batteries to be perfectly coordinated is anything but easy. Roughly speaking, the fuel cell is intended for long-distance journeys and the batteries for dynamic use and as storage for recuperation. There are also other subtleties: The electric axle has an output of 400 kW / 544 hp instead of 480 kW / 653 hp in the BEV truck. With the combination of batteries and five hydrogen tanks with a total capacity of around 70 kilograms, the fuel cell truck should have a maximum range of around 500 miles / 805 km.
Now we swing behind the wheel of the huge vehicle. The cables running across the cabin and ending in gauges indicate that this is one of 17 Beta Series prototypes. The penultimate series of tests before the truck goes into series production and hits the US market at the end of the year. The cockpit of the Nikola Tre FCEV is like that of its purely electric brother like an EI to the other. Except that some displays show the temperature and the power output of the fuel cell. The steering wheel is quickly adjusted with a foot press on a button on the floor, we are enthroned in a comfortable driver's seat. This is also a difference to many US mileage eaters, where the seating is not so comfortable.
We simulate an acceleration process as if we wanted to merge into traffic. The power deficit compared to the purely electric Nikola Truck is marginal. The fuel cell semi-trailer also copes splendidly with the weight of the loaded trailer, as we found out during a previous tour. Now it's all about the curve, no problem, the truck masters this challenge calmly, as well as the following slalom, which is a statement given the vehicle's level of development. The interaction between the drive components just described also runs unobtrusively, which should be the case.
Only when we get out do we hear the hissing again. Only this time it's shorter. "Of course, because the machine is off. That's the hissing of the air as the fuel cell dries," explains Christian Appel.