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by John McCaw
John McCaw

6 min read

Electric Vehicles, Hydrogen Fuel Cells, And The Future Of Low Carbon Transportation | Q&A With Nikola Motor Company

November 21, 2019

John McCaw
by John McCaw


We sat down with Elizabeth Fretheim, Head of Business Development at Nikola Motor Company to discuss the future of low carbon solutions for freight transportation.

Elizabeth Fretheim is the head of Business Development for Nikola Motor Company where she works with fleets to help them transition to a zero-emission future with hydrogen fuel cell and all-electric vehicles.

Q: Why is Nikola focusing on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles while many others are looking to all-electric options?

A: The key difference between Nikola and our competitors is that we are not eliminating any electric technologies from our portfolio. Nikola has officially announced we will be looking at both hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) options.

The intriguing part about hydrogen fuel cell technology is its ability to cater to the long-haul market. With fuel cells, you can travel further distances with the same vehicle weight as a battery-electric system. Similarly, the refueling time for a fuel cell electric vehicle is as low as 10 to 15 minutes. This eliminates lengthy downtime required to adequately charge a battery-electric model and is much closer to a diesel fuel drivetrain experience.

Our focus on hydrogen fuel cells stems from the developments being made in the technology. Fuel cell technology is becoming ever-more efficient, fuel cells are more prevalent in transportation strategies, and hydrogen gas generation is set to become more available.

Q: Do you think the argument over battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles will be an “and” or an “or” solution?

A: At Nikola Motor Company, we see a future where both all-electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles coexist. They will rely on each other for the most optimized low carbon transportation strategy possible. The drivetrains for both battery-electric and fuel cell electric vehicles are essentially the same, the difference is how each of them stores their energy. Energy storage will provide opportunities and constraints for each technology, and the key will be finding and employing each technology based on its best use-case.

Whereas fuel cell electric vehicles are best used for longer-haul shipments, battery electric vehicles will work well in the converse.  These are better for short hauls, stop and go movements, and final mile operations. As such, movements that operate on these duty cycles fit well for a battery-electric vehicle because they are cyclical and repeatable.

In a future that utilizes both technologies to their maximum potential, both shippers and carriers will have a portfolio of drivetrains enabled throughout their network, each prescribed for unique network characteristics.

Q: What can shippers do to support the development of both technologies in the transportation industry?

A: In the early years of these technologies, it will need to be a partnership between carriers and shippers. Carriers ultimately need to make the upfront investment to adopt the technology, but to ensure the consistency of their business, they will need to find shipper partners who understand the benefits and challenges of bringing new technology to life. If you have a contract carrier that decides to invest in BEV or FCEV technology, there may be instances where things don’t go as planned, and having a shipper partner who is supportive of that will be helpful in the early stages.

For shippers, this goes beyond just saying “yes.” A few things you can do to support your carriers who are committed to starting this transition are:

  1. Have a dedicated team with specific goals to move toward this technology. Having a “why person” to consistently drive home this message will keep the big picture strategy in mind while the rest of the team dives into the operational details.
  2. Find dedicated lanes to pilot these technologies. With the right carrier partner, you can find lanes with ideal conditions and parameters to make these pilots successful.
  3. Participate in lobbying to help create a consistent regulatory landscape from state-to-state across the country.
  4. Support your carriers’ investment in these technologies by considering longer contract terms, appropriate rate structures, and by installing on-site infrastructure.

Q: What misperceptions does the transportation industry have about BEV and FCEV technology?

A: Many believe these are mutually exclusive technologies. They tend to believe that hydrogen fuel cells will eventually replace battery-electric models. At Nikola, we know that is not the case. We know that in our most optimal future, there is a place for both technologies.

Another misrepresentation is that electric vehicle technology should be considered specifically for sustainability goals—because it is “the right thing to do.” While this is true and there are sustainable gains to be made, Nikola knows that the technology will be viable from a business standpoint.

Hydrogen fuel cell and battery-electric vehicle technology is as much about the business as it is about the environment. Climate policy and strategy can be a tough sell because, at the end of the day, both shippers and carriers have a bottom line to cater to. We, therefore, anticipate greater reliability, less maintenance, less downtime, increased power and torque, and overall lower energy costs. The quietness of the technology can open up more flexible delivery times because it complies with noise ordinances. In the short term, what appears to be an expensive alternative to invest in is ultimately moving your organization to better technology in the future.

Finally, some are skeptical and believe that we are at the limits of both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric technology. Nikola believes in the opposite. We are still in the infant stages and envision many new opportunities and innovations to come.

Q: For you personally, what is the most exciting part of joining the Nikola Team?

A: For me, it is seeing that a low carbon transportation landscape can be a reality. Understanding the capabilities of fuel cell and battery-electric technology is just the beginning. The real exciting part is working among people who have the passion, drive, and intelligence to get it done. Working from the outside you can be in the camp of being skeptical of disruptive ideas, and you’re concerned about taking risks. You’re focused on moving goods on time and for the right price. After transitioning to Nikola and now being a part of driving forward these solutions, my biggest surprise and excitement is in seeing how near term these technologies are.** **

Q: When will we see Nikola vehicles hit the road?

A: Nikola’s first vehicles will hit the road as early as late-2021, with mass production planned for 2023.

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