Tesla’s U.S. Rival Breaks Ground On Its First American Factory

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By Tsvetana Paraskova

A day after Tesla picked Austin, Texas, for its next U.S. Gigafactory, its newest competitor in zero-emission vehicle manufacturing, Nikola Corporation, broke ground on its first manufacturing facility in Arizona, bringing its vision to start manufacturing hydrogen heavy-duty trucks closer to reality. Nikola expects to start producing hydrogen trucks from its factory in Coolidge, Arizona, in the second half of 2023.

Its first truck ever will be produced in Europe in 2021, at Iveco’s factory in Ulm, Germany, under a partnership with CNH Industrial.

The US$600-million Arizona factory will initially produce the Nikola Tre and Nikola Two trucks. At full production, the facility will be able to manufacture around 35,000 units annually.

Nikola also plans to manufacture battery electric trucks for shorter-haul applications, while developing a hydrogen fuel cell truck ideally suited for long-haul transportation.

For Nikola, the hydrogen trucks and the 100-percent battery-electric trucks are complementary use cases, the company said in a presentation at the virtual Deutsche Bank Global Auto Industry Conference last month. The hydrogen-fueled vehicles will have an estimated range of 500-750 miles and can be used in long-haul transportation, while the BEV trucks with ranges of up to 300 miles would be used for shorter transportation routes, Nikola says.

The company – set up in 2015 – has yet to sell a vehicle and get any revenues, but it was listed on the NASDAQ last month after merging with special purpose vehicle company VectoIQ Acquisition Corp, and its market capitalization was US$12.25 billion as of closing on July 23. Analysts and the media see Tesla and Nikola as rivals in the zero-emission vehicle market. But Trevor Milton, Nikola’s founder and executive chairman, says that the real competitor is the diesel trucks, and fans and developers of battery and hydrogen vehicles have to focus on replacing diesel and stop hating each other.

Nikola is not rivaling Tesla in the passenger car manufacturing business: it’s aiming to build battery-electric and hydrogen-electric trucks and pickups. Its long game is in zero-emission heavy-duty transportation and related infrastructure such as hydrogen station networks.

But its new electric pickup truck, Badger, could compete with Tesla’s Cybertruck. The Badger will have an estimated range of up to 600 miles, which is 100 miles more than the estimated maximum range of Tesla’s Cybertruck.

Nikola has yet to make or sell or lease any BEV and FCEV trucks, but it expects first revenue to start trickling in next year when it projects BEV truck sales of 600 units, the company said in an SEC filing of the prospectus for its listing. In 2024, Nikola targets sales or leases of 7,000 BEV trucks and 5,000 FCEV trucks with 24 completed hydrogen stations by then.

In order to finance the rollout of battery and hydrogen trucks, Nikola will likely need to raise an additional US$700 million of equity financing between late 2021 and early 2022, it said in the SEC filing. The company also expects to issue debt over the next five years to support operations and finance manufacturing equipment and hydrogen station equipment.

Unlike Tesla, Nikola is not building the technology behind its vehicles in-house. Instead, it has chosen to share the intellectual property on its R&D with technology and engineering companies with deep pockets that can make Nikola’s ideas work.

As for the FCEV vs BEV rivalry, Nikola’s Milton wrote in a LinkedIn post last month:

“BEV vs FCEV. What people don’t understand is they don’t compete. They complement each other.”

“No one size ever fits every application and in this situation, FCEV is cheaper than BEV for long haul trucking,” Nikola’s founder argues, and concludes:

“It is not FCEV vs BEV, its FCEV & BEV. Now let’s stop hating each other and focus on getting rid of diesel trucks by offering a kick ass solution to drivers so they happily accept the change.”

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