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January 2, 2017 4:00 AM, EST
Letters: Skepticism Over Hydrogen Claims, Shipper Tactics

These letters appear in the Jan. 2 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The Potential Rub in the Nikola One

The recent coverage of the introduction of Nikola One revealed a truly impressive tractor with many well-thought-out features, including independent suspension and regenerative braking. The ability to continuously generate electricity with hydrogen to recharge the batteries and power the motors located at the wheels makes great sense in that it gives great range, and so does the ability to have so much independent control over both traction and braking at every wheel.

The claim by Nikola Motor Co. that there will be a hydrogen refueling infrastructure with outlets located along major routes completes the picture. Or does it?

What was left out in all the articles I read about the concept is the actual process of generating the hydrogen. And therein lies the potential rub. Hydrogen is abundant in nature but not in the combustible form taken by natural gas, oil and coal. It must be dissociated from water or natural gas or other fuels before powering the Nikola via its efficient fuel cells.

The Department of Energy tells us there are a couple of ways to produce hydrogen out of natural gas. One takes net energy to produce hydrogen, but there’s another called partial oxidation which, when accompanied by a second producing a water-gas shift reaction, actually produces a small amount of net energy with carbon dioxide being a byproduct. The net effect, when compared with operating vehicles on gasoline, is a slight reduction in CO2 production, which apparently means at least as much CO2 in the atmosphere as when running a diesel. So the Nikola One isn’t actually a zero-emissions vehicle when you see the entire process.

Just how all this will shake out in terms of net cost, especially considering the high first cost of the Nikola One, is a complex question, but it is curious that this part of the process was not detailed in the press materials. I applaud the concept and can imagine some applications where its ability to climb hills faster and greatly reduce the amount of energy lost to braking would give it a significant advantage, possibly making it more than viable economically in certain circumstances.

However, all this is occurring in the context of a diesel trucking world in which strides forward in engine and vehicle efficiency are occurring every day. I suspect, for these reasons, that the concept’s widespread usage will be delayed until more efficient ways to generate hydrogen are discovered and the necessary expensive hydrogen production infrastructure is built. For the time being, the Nikola One may well serve as a semi-experimental but also practical way for truck fleets to explore and prepare for the more distant future in a small but significant percentage of their operations.

John Baxter

Proprietor

Baxter TechWrite

Downingtown, Pennsylvania

Truck Loading Danger on Streets, in the Wallet

Along Interstate 94 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct 19 of last year, a flatbed truck loaded with structural steel beams was cut off by another vehicle and forced to brake abruptly. He came to a clean, safe stop and was very lucky not to have been killed as part of his cargo flew through the cab. (See pictures of the incident.)

Upon investigation at the scene, all tie-down straps seemed to be tight and properly placed. Nonetheless, the driver narrowly escaped death.

The parts of steel were then picked up off the highway and brought to the tow truck operation center. The tow truck operator, the insurance adjuster and others at the scene were of the opinion that the cargo was not safely loaded onto the flatbed trailer. The shipper, a steel mill in DeKalb County, Indiana, is responsible for the proper loading at its facility. The driver then straps down the entire load, unable to look inside the steel bundles.

The unaffected freight, which never moved from the truck and was not touched in any way, was returned to the shipper, along with a second truck that carried the damaged steel recovered from the roadway.

The shipper then proceeded to submit a freight claim (I know, crazy!) for the entire load, including the perfectly good freight not having been manipulated or touched. I guess they needed the extra sales. Is this a joke?

A shipper who likely causes a problem, and then tries to throw the little guy under the bus to cover up it near-fatal mistakes. Hmmm, sounds like a David-and-Goliath story.

The carrier’s insurance company would have none of it and told the shipper that it must prove cargo damages for it to be taken seriously. An invoice for the whole load doesn’t do it.

It gets worse: In the freight claim invoice, the shipper puts a freight charge equivalent to nearly three times what we would have charged for the load but did not. We didn’t even bill them any freight charges. In other words, they were padding the already bogus freight claim with a fraudulent freight charge amount they never incurred.

You be the judge. Would you haul freight for these guys? The word scoundrel comes to mind.

Alex Wilson

President

EveryPoint Logistics Solutions

Montreal