Test The Limits

Future trucks: highly charged and aerodynamic

By Exa

June 12 2016

A lot has been discussed in the media recently about the next generation of Class 8 tractor designs and how they will seek to improve aero-efficiency – and therefore reduce costs – for the fleet sector in years to come.


Of particular interest recently has been the Nikola One concept truck from Utah-based startup, Nikola Motor Company, for its eye-catching cabin design and stated ‘one million miles of free fuel’. Further intrigue lies in its commitment to ‘never plugging in’ for electric charge, as it utilizes clever regenerative braking and active turbines to refuel the huge 320 kWh battery onboard.


More than 32,000 individual lithium-ion cells that are mainly charged on board by a turbine that can be powered by a range of fuels contribute to the Nikola One’s bold claim of 1,200 mile electric range.  This figure would be significantly reduced were it not for the aerodynamically efficient arrow-head shaping of the cabin.


The turbine-electric drive system allows more flexibility for the vehicle layout than a traditionally powered Class 8 tractor that typically has to package the diesel engine in front of the cabin.  This flexibility allows the designers to focus on the driver experience as well as open up the design space to unlock significant aerodynamic improvements.  Rather than a traditional, vertical windshield and grill, the Nikola One has a single sweep side profile from the bumper to the exit of the roof fairing to allow passing air to glide  over the top of it with reduced aerodynamic disturbances.  The top view profile shows softer radii in the traditional A-pillar area that cleanly transitions to the wheel arches, all combining to reduce drag inducing separation in all types of wind conditions compared with traditional tractor hood and cabin design. 


At the front of the cabin and on the side skirting behind the front wheels, strategically placed vents suck in the oncoming airflow to help with the thermal management of the electric-turbine drive system while also enhancing aerodynamics, necessary for the Nikola One’s prolonged electric range. These passive aero-thermal performance methods will allow the truck to haul its load  efficiently and improve the robustness of the vehicle design and operation.


The Nikola One remains merely a concept at this stage – and perhaps that’s why its creators can make such assertions about its efficiency – but highly efficient, highly slippery electric heavy duty tractors are being taken seriously by industry leaders as well.


Tesla CTO and co-founder, JB Straubel, recently teased audiences on the billion-dollar brand’s interest in developing trucks of similar capabilities to the Nikola One:


“I can’t say too much about the new products and the things we are developing, but from a pure technology point of view, everything that we’ve done on vehicles translates directly into trucks. There’s no reason that today you can’t make a very compelling electric truck. They can charge at same sort of times as a Model S – as one of our passenger vehicles – and have the same economy of operation.”


If Tesla gets involved with these ‘future trucks’, expect serious innovations over the next few years.


They would be a compelling proposition for fleet buyers who would see dramatic cost-savings, as well as being assured of meeting emission-based regulations, whether they’re operating in the US, Europe or anywhere else in the world. With the right aerodynamic development, battery-powered trucks could literally be unstoppable!