Why U.S. Xpress is backing the Nikola One hydrogen-electric tractor

CEO Max Fuller says controlling fuel, maintenance costs are major draws

U.S. Xpress believes the Nikola Motor's Nikola One hydrogen-electric truck can stabilize volatile fuel prices and provide a fixed cost for its fleet.

U.S. Xpress believes the Nikola Motor's Nikola One hydrogen-electric truck can stabilize volatile fuel prices and provide a fixed cost for its fleet.


The truck may look futuristic, but to Max Fuller, it’s benefits are anything but. Fuller, founder, chairman & CEO of U.S. Xpress, says the Nikola One tractor from Salt Lake City-based Nikola Motors represents a potential operational advantage for those that buy in to the idea of a hydrogen-powered electric truck.

Count Fuller and U.S. Xpress among them.

“There’s an intersect here in the next five or six years where battery technology may overtake diesel [in operational cost],” Fuller tells FreightWaves, explaining that the Nikola One truck could represent a 30% to 50% cost reduction per truck for his fleet. “[Nikola’s] providing the fuel, so I’ve got a fixed cost, whereas the price of diesel is volatile. The incentive is to get out of the whole diesel volatility cycle. It really is something we can’t control but it impacts our bottom line greatly.”

Nikola Motor is promising to provide 1 million miles of hydrogen fuel, plus maintenance, tires and some ancillary items such as truck washes as part of a monthly lease program that will range from $5,000 to $7,000. Fleets and owner-operators can also choose to purchase the truck and those items will still be covered, says Trevor Milton, founder & CEO.

To Fuller, that kind of cost control is potentially a big win for his fleet. Still, there is risk. Hydrogen-powered Class 8 tractors are an unknown, starting with a fueling infrastructure that is nearly nonexistent at this point.

The Dept. of Energy is predicting that hydrogen used for onboard storage on vehicles will drop in price to just $10 per kWh of power. Click image to enlarge (Source: Dept. of Energy)

For Fuller, hydrogen-electric power is another in a long line of technologies U.S. Xpress has been among the first to try and in many cases adopt. That list includes Qualcomm navigation, collision avoidance systems, automated manual transmissions, roll stability control, and satellite navigation. By most accounts, like Milton, Fuller can be declared a visionary.

“I don’t have a problem [trying] a new technology because we’ve done it enough, and we have a thorough validation process; some products don’t make it through,” says Fuller. “But this is such a major game-changer for the industry. One of the biggest problems is [fuel price] volatility, and this will help stabilize that.”

Still, he wasn’t without some skepticism before signing on to the Nikola One project.

“I spent about six hours with Trevor and I kept probing the issues,” Fuller relates. “The guy understands what he is doing. He may not understand trucking, but he understands batteries and technologies. I don’t have any investment in this, I just like what he’s doing and want to help him along the way.

“Operational cost, productivity, driver acceptance [are among some of the ways U.S. Xpress will validate the truck],” Fuller continues. “There are a number points, and if there are weaknesses, we’ll point those out. Trevor has been very good about [listening] and working with us.”

Having U.S. Xpress, the second largest privately held transportation company with more than 7,000 trucks and 19,000 trailers, and Ryder System, which will provide maintenance, sales and distribution of Nikola One (sleeper) and Nikola Two (day cab) upon launch in 2021, on board is a big boost for Nikola Motor, but Milton says the vehicles and services will sell themselves.

Operational cost, productivity, driver acceptance [are among some of the ways U.S. Xpress will validate the truck]. There are a number points, and if there are weaknesses, we’ll point those out. Trevor has been very good about [listening] and working with us.”
— Max Fuller, founder, CEO and Chairman, U.S. Xpress

“Our business model makes sense for anyone who drives full time,” Milton says. “They will save 30% on every truck they own.”

On-road testing is set to begin later in 2018, Milton says.

Hydrogen infrastructure

Beyond the viability of the trucks themselves, the big question is where a driver is going to get hydrogen fuel. Milton says Nikola plans to open 35 hydrogen stations per year with an eventual national network of 364 stations.

Fuller likens the infrastructure build-out to that of natural gas. Initially, few stations were available, but that quickly grew as demand increased. With Ryder and its 800-plus facility network on board, the hydrogen infrastructure could grow just as quickly.

As to demand for such a truck, Milton says Nikola has over $4 billion in reservations so far. “We’re booked out for many years and Ryder hasn’t even started selling the truck yet,” he says. “I’m really anxious, but regardless of who builds a truck like this, it takes 4 to 8 years to develop.”

Nikola is in the middle of that timeframe now. The initial trucks will be assembled by Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which will produce 5,000 trucks a year. Eventually, Nikola plans to build its own manufacturing facility, but having Fitzgerald build the initial trucks has helped reduce costs.

About the truck

Because hydrogen fuels the electric motor, which really powers the truck, this is a 100% emissions-free vehicle that does not need to be plugged in or suffer from any of the range limitations that electric vehicles currently have. With its electric drive/hydrogen power combination, the tractor will have an effective range of 800 to 1,200 mi. before a hydrogen fill-up will be needed. It will take 15 minutes to refill the hydrogen tank.

According to Nikola Motor, the cost to operate the Nikola One will be about half that compared to a comparative diesel-powered tractor.

Nikola Motor says that the cost to operate the Nkola One will be at least 30% cheaper than a diesel model. Click to enlarge (Source: Nikola Motor)

The electric engine is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and produces 2,000 lbs.-ft. of torque and 1,000 hp. with a 320 kWh battery. Regenerative braking is used to supply power. Zero to 60 acceleration under load is said to be 30 seconds as compared to 60 seconds for a diesel unit.

The battery storage system features 32,000 individual lithium-ion cells welded together for the battery pack – three times the size of a Tesla Model S P90D. MPG will be about double that of a diesel model, ranging from 13 to 15 mpg depending on specific operating conditions. With a 2,000 lbs. estimated weight saving (18,000 to 21,000 lbs. vs. 19,000 to 23,000 lbs. for a diesel unit), Nikola says that vehicles could potentially haul additional weight leading to up to $1,000 extra revenue per load.

The fuel economy edge, the company says, is achieved through aerodynamics, no idling, battery charging through regenerative braking, a 6x4 four-wheel drive configuration and the efficient electric motors (said to be up to 95% efficient) and a fuel cell up to 70% efficient.

A driver’s eye view

The cab is a mid-cab design with “surround vision” and features a 15 in. touchscreen that gives the driver a virtual aerial view of the area around the truck and trailer in real time, eliminating blind spots. A panoramic windshield and a forward position for the driver provides improved visibility. That view is complemented by high-definition cameras combined with radar, sonar and computer software. The result is a complete 360 deg. view of the vehicle.

Do you like this story? Consider sharing it: 

The mid-cab design features a sliding entry door to reduce the dangers of climbing into and out of the cab.

This is a driver productivity tool

The touchscreen is where some of the most advanced productivity tools are located. Nikola aims to make the vehicle an “all-inclusive” model, giving drivers all the tools they need to do their jobs. This includes standard readouts such as battery levels, ranges, wheel torque and cabin controls, Bluetooth-enabled phone, calendar, integrated logging and driver/vehicle performance data and more. It also includes navigation and vehicle data as well as “Nikola Shipments.”

Nikola Shipments is a freight matching software, similar to the growing number of “Uber for freight” models. A driver simply enters their departure and arrival locations along with times and they will be provided a list of available shipments along the route. The driver can then filter the available shipments by value and added time.

“Our entire business plan is to be vertically integrated,” explains Milton. “We didn’t do it to get people to buy in; it is because our entire business plan is to be the only company [that offers an end-to-end solution].”

While Milton is unable to say who Nikola is working with on the service at this point, Nikola Shipments will allow anyone to upload available loads and drivers will receive that information right in the cab.

“We’re not just a truck manufacturer, we’re a whole service,” he adds. “We offer the truck, the fuel, the maintenance, the [freight]. It really makes it an even playing field. Until now, no one has made it an even playing field for owner-operators and large fleets. Now, large fleets will no longer have an advantage because the truck will cost the same [for everyone].”

The display shows Nikola Hydrogen fueling stations and service locations.

For driver comfort, Nikola says the cab offers a 30% larger cabin than similar vehicles and includes two full size beds, full size fridge and freezer, microwave, computer desk, climate control, integrated Apple TV and a 40 in. curved LED 4K TV, WiFi and 4G LTE internet and plenty of 12V and 110V outlets.