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Truck Tech: ‘Into the Groove’ edition

Assembly plant dances; positive vibe for Nikola and a solid autonomous guess

This week, Tesla’s Elon Musk gets happy feet in Berlin while Navistar executives resist the temptation in San Antonio; Nikola gets some love after an analyst day in the Sonoran Desert; and an educated guess on where TuSimple and Navistar will build their autonomous truck.

Happy feet

“You can dance … For inspiration. Come on. I’m waiting.” — “Into the Groove” by Madonna

Opening a new assembly plant is a joyous occasion. It might even give you happy feet, as Tesla’s Elon Musk broke out in dance while inaugurating Gigafactory Berlin in Germany on Tuesday. The next day, Navistar cut the ribbon to open its new assembly plant in San Antonio.

But no dancing. CEO Mattias Carlbaum was aware of Musk’s moves and suggested he would have liked to show Tesla a thing or two. But the Swede resisted the temptation.

Executive Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Hernandez, who oversaw the building of the $250 million plant in just two years, confided that he would have danced. But he could not persuade event organizers to play his walk-up song, “Baby Shark.”

Navistar Executive Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Hernandez missed his walk-up music at the San Antonio plant opening. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Nikola on the move?

Out in the Sonoran Desert between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, Nikola welcomed analysts to the company’s still-under-construction electric truck assembly plant in Coolidge on Wednesday. Judging from some comments — and a nice five-day run in the stock price before the confab — Nikola is being taken seriously by Wall Street now that so many of its problems are behind.

It helps immensely that Nikola (NASDAQ: NKLA) is writing orders and taking letters of intent for its battery-electric and fuel cell Class 8 day cabs. It confirmed to analysts that it is on track to build 300 to 500 BETs this year. Regular production began on Monday.

Founder Trevor Milton, who is awaiting trial on criminal fraud charges in July, is pretty much in the rearview mirror. The company wants him to reimburse a $125 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission but privately acknowledges that is unlikely.

If shareholders approve a proposed 200 million-share increase in authorized stock in June and the company moves to sell all or most of the shares, the resulting dilution to existing shareholders could be significant. 

Or, as with Tesla raising capital to shore up its balance sheet in recent years, it could be a non-issue. Nikola needs significant new money — about $1 billion — to keep its ambitious plans for electric trucks and hydrogen production on track. And the credit markets are getting more expensive with rising inflation.

Equity might be the most viable road. It’s the one analysts expect Nikola to take some time this year.

Nikola Tre battery-electric trucks in Arizona. (Photo: Nikola)

Taking orders

Someday, we’ll stop writing about every double-digit order of battery-electric trucks. We’ve already determined that orders of ones and twos no longer are newsworthy. Larger orders still matter because these are the bookings that will truly flip the switch to BETs making a meaningful difference in market share.

So, this week’s release from Volvo Trucks that startup WattEV placed an order for 50 of its VNR Electric trucks still counts. What’s more, WattEV is one of the under-told stories of electric trucking.

WattEV is building out a truck-as-a-service model that includes a public network of heavy-duty battery-electric truck charging depots to service major transportation corridors, connecting shipping ports with freight distribution centers and warehouse locations.

Over the next several months, the Volvo VNR Electric trucks will begin operating on routes between California’s San Joaquin Valley, Inland Empire, and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

WattEV’s first public truck charging depots will be in Bakersfield, San Bernardino and near the Port of Long Beach. They will feature 250-kilowatt hour chargers capable of juicing the Volvo VNR Electric trucks with an 80% charge in 90 minutes for models with six-battery packs. 

WattEV envisions its charging network expanding nationwide, Eventually, the company plans to scale its depots to 1.2-megawatt charging capability for ultrafast charging.

The VNR Electric’s six-battery package option features increased energy storage of 565 kWh and an operational range of up to 275 miles.

The Volvo VNR Electric can travel up to 275 emission-free miles with a six-battery option. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

Hydrogen hub

Four states — New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut — have agreed to work with about 40 clean power companies, utilities and universities to design a regional hydrogen hub to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is exactly the kind of thing that will boost hydrogen’s chances as a transportation fuel and create places where hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks can operate without concerns of inadequate infrastructure. Hydrogen also could potentially power ships, trains and planes or their ground equipment.

The states want to develop a proposal to become one of at least four hubs designated under a federal infrastructure act, which set aside $8 billion for such centers.

According to Bloomberg, New York is taking the lead in the project, which Gov. Kathy Hochul said fits with her state’s pursuit of clean energy alternatives. 

Among the participants are utilities including Consolidated Edison Inc. and National Grid Plc as well as companies such as Plug Power Inc. and Bloom Energy Corp., along with schools including Columbia University and Cornell University.

Educated guess

Navistar isn’t yet announcing where it will build its ground-up Level 4 autonomous Class 8 International LT tractor with TuSimple. But if you guess the new plant in San Antonio, no one is going to wave you off.

The process of elimination gets you there. Neither Escobedo, Mexico — where Navistar builds its on-high LT trucks — nor Springfield, Ohio — home to Class 4-6 commercial trucks — has the advanced capabilities built into San Antonio. And a new Advanced Technology Center 8 miles from the plant is where a lot of the planning is underway.

For now, TuSimple is retrofitting LTs with its software and hardware package for driverless operation in Tucson, and it is testing “driver-out” operation on a permanent basis.

But the more than 7,000 nonbinding reservations TuSimple has would require more plant capacity than a single shift operation producing 52 medium- and heavy-duty vocational trucks a day that San Antonio will build by the end of July.

Navistar has 428 acres of land in San Antonio, more than enough to double or even triple the size of the initial 920,000 square feet in the existing facility.

TuSimple autonomous-equipped Navistar International LTs (Photo: TuSimple)

Best of the rest …

Hyliion picked up another 20 orders with deposits for its natural gas-electric Class 8 Hypertruck ERX. The customer is Laredo, Texas-based Mone Transportation, which already incorporates Hyliion’s Hybrid EX electric boost into some of its trucks. Converting reservations to orders gets Mone in queue for build slots when production begins in 2023.

In a rare move for a Japanese manufacturer, Isuzu Motors Ltd. has tapped Shaun Skinner, president of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America Inc. and Isuzu Commercial Truck of Canada Inc., as an executive officer. Skinner is the first local executive of an overseas Isuzu distributor to be named an executive officer of the parent company.

Shaun Skinner (Photo: Isuzu)

Robert “Chet” Richardson, former vice president at less-than-truckload carrier YRC, is joining autonomous trucking startup Kodiak Robotics as head of freight operations and network. It’s a sign that Kodiak, a latecomer to autonomous trucking, is closing in on commercialization.

Richardson will be tasked with building a network of partners and supporting commercial customers as they deploy the Level 4 Kodiak Driver at scale. He also will help locate, design and manage future Kodiak autonomous trucking facilities as well as build out the services and infrastructure to support Kodiak partners’ freight operations. 

During his time at Yellow Corp. subsidiary YRC,  Richardson led a team of more than 200 management personnel and 3,900 drivers, while  managing 34 relay offices, central dispatch operations, and more than 7,500 trucks and 25,000 trailers.

Robert “Chet”  Richardson (Photo: Kodiak Robotics)

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech in your email on Fridays.


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.