Nikola's sleek hybrid semi could be the Tesla of trucks

Tesla is getting into trucking. At least his first name is.

The Nikola Motor Company, a Utah-based startup, has unveiled a compressed natural gas-electric hybrid semi aimed at disrupting the long-haul trucking industry the way the Tesla Model S did the car business.

(Nikola Motor Company)

The company is run by Trevor Milton, a former executive at dHybrid Systems, which developed a CNG system for tractor-trailers that’s now owned by Worthington Industries. Along with Faraday Future, Nikola is the latest automotive outfit named after an electrical pioneer to seemingly appear from the ether.

The truck, called the Nikola One, has been developed in secret for the past three years. It features a 150-gallon dHybrid storage system stacked behind its cab that fuels a turbine generator, which charges a 320-kilowatt-hour battery pack that drives six motors, one for each wheel. In this way, it works much like a diesel-electric locomotive.

It’s not a conversion vehicle. The truck’s chassis was engineered specifically for the project and features a unique independent rear suspension system designed in conjunction with automotive component supplier Meritor.

The series-hybrid drivetrain puts out 2,000 hp and 3,700 lb-ft of torque, Milton said in an interview, and it gets 10-15 mpg – about twice the fuel economy of a typical 500 hp, 1,650 lb-ft diesel tractor. As with most hybrid and electric vehicles, it has regenerative brakes that charge the batteries on downhill stretches, helping contribute to its claimed 800-1,200 mile range between fill-ups.

The plan is for Nikola to build a nationwide network of refueling stations to support its customers, similar to Tesla’s electric supercharger network. Nikola owns its own CNG wells and will sell the fuel for the equivalent of $1.50 per gallon, but the first 5,000 buyers of the $375,000 truck will get 1 million miles’ worth for free.

Though only renderings of the vehicle have been released so far (a working prototype will be shown by the end of the year), Milton says several fleet operators have been involved in its development, and Nikola has many orders in hand. He says the company is well funded by a group of very wealthy private investors and companies working across multiple industries. He promises to provide more information on them soon.

As for when you might start to see the sleek semis on the road, Milton expects to begin full production at a facility in Utah within 24 to 36 months.

But you might get dusted by another Nikola vehicle – a 520 hp all-electric 4x4 side-by-side that can run underwater – off-road before then. The four-seat Nikola Zero UTV is being designed with 14.5 inches of ground clearance and 20 inches of suspension travel. Its on-board computer can operate each of its four motors independently to maximize grip and handling, depending on the situation. Solar panels on the roof keep its 12-volt battery charged so its systems don’t need to draw from the main drive battery, which has a 100-150 mile range.

Milton, an avid off-roader, likes the idea of an emissions-free UTV that can rock crawl or blast through the desert with equal ease, and doesn’t have any transmission belts to break, a frequent and inconvenient occurrence among UTVs. Priced at $42,000, the Zero costs about twice as much as a conventional high performance UTV, but Milton says Nikola has already received more deposits than expected and aims to start deliveries within 18 months.

(Nikola Motor Company)

(Nikola Motor Company)