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Nikola's HYLA Stations Are a 'Supercharger Moment' for Hydrogen Trucking

hydrogen fuel truck
Nikola's HYLA Stations Are Its Supercharger MomentDan Edmunds - Car and Driver
  • HYLA, a portmanteau of HYdrogen and NikoLA, is a Nikola-owned subsidiary that is focusing on building a "robust hydrogen supply chain."

  • HYLA's first station can refill a typical commercial truck in less than 20 minutes. It's located near countless warehouses in Ontario, California, a trucking hub within range of local ports.

  • Portable above-ground units make up the station, and they use liquid hydrogen that is converted to gaseous form as it is dispensed into a truck and pressurized to 10,000 psi.

Nikola, an alternate-fuel heavy-duty truckmaker with a checkered past, has taken a big step toward ensuring future success by opening its first HYLA-branded hydrogen refueling station. It's built to fill the refueling needs of the company's own Tre FCHEV (fuel-cell hydrogen electric vehicle). You could call this Nikola's "Supercharger moment," a Tesla-like move in which they take charge of both the chicken and the egg sides of the equation so potential customers of their Tre FCHEV semi will not have to wonder how they'll refuel their new rigs.

But HYLA stations are not built to serve Nikola's trucks exclusively: the H70 refueling standard and nozzle design they employ is an industry standard that is also used by heavy-duty hydrogen fuel-cell trucks from Hyundai and others.

hydrogen fuel truck
Dan Edmunds - Car and Driver

The use of liquid hydrogen solves a couple of problems that can plague the gaseous hydrogen stations geared toward the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, particularly capacity and downtime. A given amount of liquid hydrogen takes up only a tenth the space of hydrogen in gaseous form, so the portable above-ground units (there are currently two at this location) can refill many more trucks—about 20 to 25 trucks per day, per unit. Furthermore, the extremely cold nature of liquid hydrogen (-423 Fahrenheit) eliminates the overheating issues that can hamper gaseous hydrogen delivery. Finally, the HYLA stations (which will be open 24/7) are staffed by technicians that carry out refueling and monitor performance.

hydrogen fuel truck
Dan Edmunds - Car and Driver

Where to Put New Stations for Cars?

Station location decisions are much easier to determine when heavy-duty trucking is involved, because commercial trucks follow very predictable routes, particularly if they're moving from port to warehouse to port. Cars tend to disperse over a much wider area, so figuring out where to put hydrogen stations to serve them is a comparative nightmare. This Ontario station is close to an uncommonly dense concentration of warehouses and rail lines, and the 500-mile fully loaded range of the Nikola Tre FCHEV, which has a loaded GVWR of 82,000 pounds, is more than sufficient to make runs to northern California. When they get there, First Element, a consortium also building hydrogen refueling facilities aimed at commercial trucking, has a station in Oakland, California, that enables return trips and runs farther upstate.

Is a National Network Like Tesla's Coming?

HYLA plans to open several more stations around California in the coming months, with the easily permitted above-ground configurations like this one morphing into permanent below-ground stations as permitting matures, at which point the above-ground units can hopscotch to seed another refueling hub at another location. Their near-term goal is to get the Interstate 5 corridor covered from San Diego to Seattle, but there are rumblings about programs in other states that could lead to a more national network. We do remember a time when the nascent Tesla Supercharger network consisted of just six stations—all of them in California—and look at where we are now.

hydrogen fuel truck
Dan Edmunds - Car and Driver

Riding High in the TRE

Meanwhile, riding in the Tre FCHEV Class 8 semi is quite an experience. It's a flat-fronted cab-over truck of the sort that lost favor in decades past because the diesels of the day vibrated a lot and were smelly for a driver sitting immediately atop the engine bay. But this cab type offers advantages in visibility and turning radius, so the silence of an electric powertrain and the accompanying fuel cell “stack” meant that Nikola could revive this configuration without bringing back these significant historical drawbacks. This so-called “day cab” truck (as opposed to a long-haul condo-style sleeper) weighs some 22,600 pounds, which compares to 20k pounds for a diesel with the same level of cab amenities. This added weight is one reason why the Nikola's loaded GVWR is allowed to be 82,000 pounds instead of the usual legal maximum of 80,000 pounds.

The electric drivetrain that's fed by the hydrogen fuel cell stack can deliver 536 "continuous" horsepower, which is a more relevant way to categorize engine output in the trucking industry. The range of 500 miles assumes a mostly flat run that begins and ends at roughly the same elevation, but global product head Christian Appel told us that the significant uphill run from Nikola's Coolidge, Arizona, base (elevation 1424 feet) to Flagstaff, Arizona (elevation 6,821 feet), consumes hydrogen at a rate that correlates to a still impressive 450-mile range. Meanwhile, "bobtailing" without a trailer—something trucking companies don't do because there's no money in it—can net nearly 700 miles of range. Filling from completely empty to 100 percent full is even less of a thing in a massive hydrogen semi that it is with a civilian EV, so the typical 20 to 100 percent fill time is more relevant, and that takes "less than 20 minutes."

hydrogen fuel truck
Dan Edmunds - Car and Driver

Once inside, the first thing you notice is the lack of any shift lever because the electric powertrain is direct drive and has just one gear. There's a Drive/Neutral/Reverse selector, A large button for the parking brake, and that's about it. Gear jammers need not apply. The accelerator and brake pedals would make it feel like a pickup, if not for the huge nearly horizontal bus-style steering wheel all big semis have. The seats and cab are air-suspended, too.

Underway, the bottomless torque of electric drive is palpable, even from the right-hand seat. It's utterly smooth, too, because of the complete absence of shifting. One of the steering stalks can dial up the level of regen, but we're told that one-pedal driving isn't quite a thing when a fully loaded trailer is latched behind. Like any other vehicle driven by electric motors, it's quiet up here, but even so we were still surprised to note that the loudest noise in the cabin by far was the click of the turn signals. It's no wonder the drivers that work for Biagi Brothers, an early Nikola customer based in Northern California that's running 10 Tres in their fleet, are “fighting” to drive them.

Whatever you've heard about the viability of hydrogen as a fuel for cars in the wake of Shell's recently announced retreat, don't take that to mean that Hydrogen has no future. Shell has specifically said they're pulling out of the light-duty passenger-car market. Indeed, hydrogen might not be the right solution for cars, but hydrogen's comparatively fast refueling time, long working range at load, and the simpler logistics of building a network that only need follow established truck routes means it is absolutely still in play for the trucking business. The fact that Nikola has entered the refueling game with their HYLA brand makes it more likely that they, too, will be around for the long haul.

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