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Tesla Isn't the Only Automaker Paying Homage to Nikola Tesla
Tesla’s successes are widely known. It commands the EV market and has a current market cap worth more than Ford and GM combined. It opened its third Gigafactory in Shanghai at the end of 2019 and plans on opening one in Berlin by 2021. Tesla’s successes in the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) market have accelerated the push for decarbonization in the transportation sector. However, Nikola Motor Company is also vying to compete in the ZEV market. Whereas Tesla focuses on battery EVs (BEVs), Nikola Motor Company is aiming to make headway in the fuel cell EV (FCEV) market.
Founded in 2014, Nikola Motor Company unveiled the Badger, its hybrid fuel cell and battery truck. Onboard is a 120 kW fuel cell, an 8 kg hydrogen tank, and a 160 kWh battery. Nikola Motor Company also offers a battery-only version of the truck, but range is limited to 300 miles on a full charge compared to over 600 miles with the fuel cell. The truck is expected to be made available by 2022, increasing competition in the ZEV pickup truck arena with Tesla’s Cybertruck, Hummer, and Rivian.
What’s the Difference?
While both Tesla and Nikola Motor Company offer carbon-free alternatives, the way the vehicles are powered is entirely different. Batteries, typically lithium-ion, store the electricity that they receive from a charging station while fuel cells convert oxygen and hydrogen into electricity onboard the vehicle where the only by-products are heat and water. The BEV market is also far more developed than the FCEV. There are just over 11,000 FCEVs on the road worldwide, a small fraction of BEVs.
FCEVs have two distinct advantages over their battery-powered counterparts: charging time and range. FCEVs can fill their hydrogen tanks in about the same amount of time it takes to fill a regular car. BEVs, however, can take upward of an hour to charge. FCEVs on the road today range from 312-380 miles while most BEVs hover around 250 miles. Longer-range BEVs are on the market, but come at a premium.
Pushing FCEVs Forward
As range and charging time drive apprehension toward ZEV adoption, hydrogen-fueled vehicles are uniquely positioned to relieve such concerns. However, it’s fair to ask why FCEV adoption has been lacking, despite its advantages. Put simply, the infrastructure does not exist. To date, nearly all hydrogen refueling stations are in California. As such, automakers are hesitant to significantly invest in FCEV production when their product has such geographic constraints.
Nikola Motor Company recognizes this issue as a serious impediment. In a grand step toward remedying infrastructure concerns, the company took matters into its own hands. In 2018, it closed a deal with Nel ASA, a Norway-based electrolyzer manufacturer for 448 electrolyzers and requisite fueling equipment in the largest deal of its kind. This transaction lays the foundation for Nikola Motor Company’s goal of installing over 700 hydrogen stations across North America. It’s hard to determine how the ZEV market will develop over the coming decades, but the developments in decarbonization are a necessary step forward in a fossil-fuel dominated industry.