Bosch brought a surprise to its press briefing at the House of Journalists technology seminar at CES 2024: A brand-new, Class 8 Nikola Tre fuel-cell-electric tractor. Bosch manufactures the fuel-cell assemblies used at the back of the Tre. So, the collaboration allowed journalists to see cutting-edge Bosch technology up close.
Christian Appel, Nikola’s global chief engineer, was on hand to talk to journalists about the truck and ride shotgun for a quick test drive around Las Vegas.
Advanced zero-emissions technology aside, the Nikola Tre is a head-turner, even in Las Vegas where CES took place. That’s because Nikola uses an Iveco cabover chassis, and the tall, lean, stark white Euro-style tractors really stand out on the road.
Appel told me that although Class 8 cabovers have virtually disappeared from North American highways over the past 20 years, the configuration makes a lot of sense for Tre. The tall cab assembly is ideal for the fuel-cell assembly mounted on the rear of the cabin. Plus, the overall body style is well-suited to the urban-, regional-haul, and drayage applications Nikola expects the truck to initially work in.
However, Appel said he expects that a Nikola conventional cab tractor for long-haul applications will become a reality at some point in the future.
Battery-Electric Trucks vs. Fuel-Cell-Electric Trucks
It was a brisk, windy morning in Vegas. So, the first feature that impressed me climbing up into the tall cab was how quickly the Tre’s heating system kicked in and started warming the truck’s icy cold interior. This is particularly striking because the truck is running — but the usual muted rumble of a diesel engine was completely absent.
The differences between a battery-electric truck and a fuel cell-powered vehicle are fairly substantial. A battery-electric truck takes power from an external charging source, stores it in onboard batteries, and then uses that energy to power electric drive motors. A fuel cell truck carries hydrogen onboard — much like a conventional truck carries diesel fuel.
The fuel cells at the back of the cab break down that hydrogen fuel to create electricity that powers the truck. Pure water is the only byproduct created by this process, making fuel-cell technology one of the most promising technology routes for transforming long-haul trucking away from diesel fuel to a net-zero industry.
But while the means of generating the electricity used to power the two trucks are markedly different, the performance characteristics of battery-electric trucks and hydrogen fuel-cell trucks are virtually identical. The Nikola Tre is slightly louder than the OEM’s battery-electric trucks, thanks to some muted fan-like noise coming from the fuel cells behind the cab. But that’s it.
A Futuristic, Driver-Focused Cab
The Tre’s turning radius is impressive, thanks to the deep wheel cuts and lack of a long hood jutting out in front of the cab. The truck’s acceleration is nothing short of impressive. Step on the accelerator and you’re rewarded with instant, smooth, consistent power that gets the truck up to speed quickly and quietly.
The truck’s regenerative braking system takes the place of a conventional exhaust engine brake. It’s surprisingly smooth but aggressive in slowing it down when you take your foot off the accelerator. The Tre is also equipped with standard advanced driver safety systems, including lane-departure warnings and blind-spot detection — helpful in Vegas traffic.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the truck is the advanced dash display and large center console display that smartly and clearly present critical operating and performance information. Particularly welcome is the large, easy-to-read interactive navigation screen in the center console that helps give critical navigation information to the driver at a glance.
A feature I really liked was the horizontal bar located at the bottom of the steering wheel — essentially a straight hand grip that runs from approximately the 5 o’clock spot off the steering wheel to the 7 o’clock area. It’s a small detail, but one that I found surprisingly useful when making tight 90-degree turns during our drive.
A much longer Nikola test drive under real-world trucking conditions is in the works. But my early impressions of the Tre are all positive. The truck performs well in urban traffic conditions. It is extremely quiet, smooth, safe, and capable. It’s a truck that points the way toward a new future for trucking with a firm focus on safety and productivity.