Photo courtesy of Bill Hall
Bill Hall, received the first California-based Nikola Tre FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) last December. There have been some growing pains, but with support from the OEM and plenty of patience and planning, he's showing hydrogen can power drayage operations.

Honest insights from a Nikola Tre FCEV owner after half a year

June 19, 2024
After running the first production model Nikola Tre FCEV in California for several months, Bill Hall of Coyote Container shares the ups and downs of using the hydrogen truck in drayage operations.

Bill Hall, a marine engineer with aspirations of owning a zero-emission fleet, was the first owner-operator to dive into the choppy waters of heavy-duty hydrogen mobility. He received the first Nikola Tre FCEV production model sold in California. He uses it to make a variety of drayage runs based from the Port of Oakland down to the Port of Long Beach, out to Reno, Nevada, and miscellaneous logistics moves.

It hasn’t been easy, but Hall knew what he was getting into—and his scientific approach and logistics know-how have ensured his operation improves every trip and his customer never misses a load. We spoke with Hall, who owns and operates Coyote Container, in May about the experience so far.

[Edited for grammar and style]

Fleet Maintenance: How did you get into trucking?

Bill Hall: I first heard about hydrogen trucks at the 2019 ACT Expo in Long Beach, California. Hyundai, Nikola, and many others were presenting, and it was standing-room only. At the time I was a senior  M&R manager for a large shipping company, and we were being faced with emissions constraints coming through the International Maritime Organization. Many people close to port areas were experiencing the negative health effects of fossil fuel pollution, so looking at new clean technology was my original interest.

I became more interested during COVID. After 35 years in maritime, I left my job, obtained my Class A CDL, and started my own trucking company. I started with a Ford F-450 dually and container moving trailer made by QuickLoadz. Then I graduated into short-haul drayage with a 2018 Freightliner Cascadia day cab 125 and medium-haul from the Port of Oakland down to L.A. in a 2019 Kenworth T680 sleeper.

I was driving down a stretch of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old “Hydrogen Highway” on the I-80 corridor between Oakland and Reno in California, and I got to thinking of how I’d burned a lot of fuel in my day. Now I wanted to find a better path for all of us and prove that it can work.

I thought about that conference and hydrogen trucks and did some research. Nikola seemed to be the leader at the time, with Nikola FCEV Alphas rolling around. I reached out and that led to me being selected to get their first serial production truck in California. I picked it up in Stockton on my birthday last December.

FM: What was it like getting the first commercially available fuel cell truck in the U.S.?

BH: They had a film crew to record the whole event. I drove it, put my logos on, and did an afternoon training session with the local dealer Ethero on the vehicle itself. I couldn’t take it because we still had a lot of paperwork for something like seven different agencies. It was not in anybody’s database, so for each different agency, whether it was CARB, DMV, eModal, or whoever else, some supervisor up the food chain had to enter this vehicle into the database. I was going through the pain of that for two weeks, getting all the documentation rounded up.

FM: How did you pay for it?

BH: To help with the purchase, I got California HVIP and ISEF (Innovative Small e-Fleets) vouchers and a grant from the Ports of LA/Long Beach

The grant vouchers cover up to 90% of the truck’s cost. Then there’s the 12% federal excise tax and 9% state tax—31% of $500,000 is still over $150,000. Most drayage truckers will buy fleet trucks with 500,000 miles on them for $50,000 or $60,000.

My dealer, Tom’s Truck Center down in L.A., did an excellent job and made it all easy. I think there was maybe one application to fill out. Tom managed all of that for me. The greatest challenge is transparency in the voucher grant process. I have five more applications approved. At present, the hydrogen supply in Oakland and the final truck price are curtailing any decision to move forward with additional trucks.

FM: So once you got the truck, how did it go?

BH: The trip from Stockton to Alameda is 76 miles. Near the end, the fuel cell failed while I was exiting the Webster Tunnel, which connects Alameda and Oakland. A gasket in the air compressor failed, dropping a coolant system expansion tank level and safely cutting off the fuel cell. I was able to proceed on the battery to my destination. Nikola arranged to tow the truck back up to Ethero in Stockton for repairs.

Upon retrieving the truck, I informed Nikola I had a port-to-port move from Oakland to L.A., so they had a service van follow me down as a precaution. The route was 400 miles. I got down to Pier C terminal gates when one of the fuel tanks failed. A safety valve got stuck shut. I proceeded into the terminal on the battery and dropped my container. The service team met me upon exiting and diagnosed the tank issue. Nikola had the FCEV towed back to the factory in Coolidge, Arizona, because they were the only place certified to evacuate and refill the hydrogen. They returned the truck to me in Oakland, and I pretty much put it in general service. I’ve just been driving it with any opportunity. It has 17,000 miles on it now.

Fortunately, I never missed a delivery, and it seems we don’t even think about reliability any longer. The early failures never affected deliveries, although the truck was out of service for repairs each time.

FM: What are general operations like?

BH: I keep track of every day, whether the truck was just idle, whether it was a maintenance issue that caused it to be out of service, or I couldn’t get fuel. I follow up with Nikola on those and warranty issues. Every trip I log load weight and GVW. I have all that data now, and I have a working fuel curve. Our max GVWR is 82,000 lbs. in California for zero emissions vs 80,000.

For general inspections, you have to split the cab, which is more involved than lifting the hood on a T680. You have to make sure all your gear inside the cab is nailed down.

When you do the actual tilt, you need to check all your coolant tanks and look around at the suspension; check for any coolant leaks or obvious issues with the fuel cell, wiring, tubing, etc.; and then close the cab back up. There are a lot of hoses and all kinds of wiring harnesses. It takes a little bit more time. The rest of it is pretty much the same. It’s very easy to operate. Honestly, there are far fewer gauges and fewer controls in this truck vs a diesel truck.

The truck ride, visibility, and turning are excellent. I really like the adaptive cruise control, side radars, and lane-keeping features. I would like to see a better hands-free system, prewired CB bay, separate trailer brake, and stock cushion for the berth behind the seats. I had one made.

FM: And what about the maintenance?

BH: I would say there’s less maintenance. The nice thing is I’m not going to the dealer to get warranty issues corrected. For now, Nikola dispatches their mobile service teams to take care of the warranty issues. I am sure more of this will be shifted to dealerships as they can train staff.

The only maintenance issue I’ve noticed is tire wear. Recently, I noticed a couple of cuts in the driver-side steering tire that seemed unusual. They looked like heat-affected splits. We began the conversation about that, and I took precise wear readings on all tires. Based on the projections, some tires were wearing substantially faster than others. The early air compressor failure compromised the air system with coolant entering the system. This required substantial efforts to clear and flush, including the replacement of electropneumatic controls to prevent possible sticking. During the repair, it seems the eCAS axle management system module air lines got reversed when reinstalled. This, along with minor alignment issues, was possibly contributing to the tire wear. Nikola replaced two steering and four tag-axle tires. They also realigned the front steering tires and checked axles two and three. Since these truck frames are heavier and drive axles have lots of torque, keep a close watch on tire inflation pressures and go easy on the accelerator.

I would suggest Nikola offer some different torque curves so owners can select what drivers can do with the truck in terms of acceleration to help with wear and efficiency. It’s all about the mileage.

FM: How do you fuel up?

BH: In the L.A. basin, Ontario, and now Long Beach, Nikola has 24/7 HYLA modular fueling stations. In the Port of Oakland, there is a First Element Station. Station availability and proper filling volumes for real commercial operations out of Oakland have been problematic  though improving as technicians groom the equipment. I’m trying to encourage HYLA to open up here in Oakland so we have a reliable fuel source.

FM: Final thoughts on being the earliest adopter of a fuel cell truck?

BH: I’ve talked to some truckers who had started with new diesel trucks and heard the horror stories. They’ll get animated talking about all the problems when their trucks are new. From that frame of reference, Nikola VIN #11 had a few issues out of the gate but nothing inordinate. The first 1,000 miles on a brand-new production line truck are bound to uncover some weaknesses.

What can I say about the Tre FCEV? It is an amazing technological achievement and a revolution for the trucking industry while being kind to our environment. Are there some persistent issues, shortcomings, etc.? Yes, and Nikola is working on improvements and resolutions to all of them. Many items, I think, were genuinely unanticipated, as the trucks were driven “in a bubble” not the real world.

The price and availability of fuel is a huge factor. Even at $15/kg, that’s three times the price of diesel [gallon]. If you tell a customer their fuel service charge just went from 35% to 110%, they’re going to stay with the diesel. Another factor is truck cost. Single and smaller operators need to see voucher incentives increased so they can get out the door with a $50K truck. That is the cost basis the competition has. Lastly, I would take note of the cargo weighting limitations, which will require a new adapter to cut the heavier load market share from their business income.

I think there is a big audience in the drayage world waiting for some obstacles to clear, and they will jump in quickly. Everyone wants to do the right thing to protect our environment and the communities close to the ports that suffered from all the emissions.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).

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