Driving To Deliver Your Business

Plaudits to Anheuser-Busch InBev but will electric haulage be a box-office flop?

AB InBev has put in an order for 800 Nikola Two trucks in a bid to lower haulage emissions

It is a quirk of Hollywood that two movies on the same subject will sometimes appear at the same time. When this happens, the general rule is that one will do well while the other sinks without trace. Examples include 1991’s double dose of Robin Hood – we can no doubt remember the Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman film, with its Bryan Adams soundtrack, but even hardened movie buffs would be hard pressed to recollect the other one (clue: it featured Uma Thurman as Maid Marian.

No, me neither). Then there was Capote in 2005. In that one, Philip Seymour-Hoffman starred as Truman Capote, and won an Oscar for his performance.

Hardly anyone even saw Toby Jones’s possibly superior take as the diminutive author in the other Capote movie of that year, Infamous. It may seem a leap to go from Hollywood to beverage haulage, but is the same thing happening with electric freight? Last year, both Anheuser-Busch InBev[1] and PepsiCo jumped on board with electric-vehicle company Tesla, owned by self-styled tech visionary Elon Musk.

The companies were two of the best-known firms to place orders for the Tesla Semi, Musk’s electric-powered take on the semi-articulated trucks that transport the vast majority of cargo on American roads. This week, however, AB InBev announced that its US unit, Anheuser-Busch has ordered 800 trucks from another electric-vehicle maker, Nikola Motor Co. The similarities between Tesla and Nikola go beyond sharing two halves of the name of the man behind the AC electrical supply the world still uses whenever they plug anything into a wall socket.

Both promise a future of clean-energy vehicles, though while Tesla says that future will be powered by electric batteries, Nikola is betting on hydrogen-based electric fuel cells. The question is, though, is Telsa right, or is it Nikola? Or to put it another way, who is Kevin Costner and who is Uma Thurman?

Dig a little deeper into the business of electric-powered haulage, however, and the question becomes less about who will win over the audience. There is a strong chance neither of them will reach a screen in the first place. AB InBev clearly thinks Nikola is on the right track.

It went big on this week’s partnership announcement, saying that Nikola is “leading the way” with its hydrogen-electric, zero-emission trucks. The brewer even pledged to convert its entire long-haul dedicated fleet to renewable powered trucks by 2025. What was less evident in the press buzz around the deal was that Nikola, and indeed Tesla, have yet to actually produce any trucks yet.

As David Leggett, editor of just-drinks’ sister site just-auto, points out, these companies are not established freight truck manufacturers, but technology developers with an untested ability to deliver on what they promise. Nikola so far only has a prototype of its Nikola One truck to show for in terms of actual product, and in its deal with AB InBev will only start adding to the brewer’s existing fleet in 2020. Meanwhile, though Tesla may be making waves with its electric cars (but to date no profits), there is a big difference between powering a family sedan and a fully-laden 18-wheeler rig.

“I applaud the ambition, especially the hydrogen element in Nikola’s plans, but there is a very long way to go to make it commercial reality,” says Leggett, who explains that there are still “considerable – and costly – technological and commercialisation hurdles to overcome” before we see electric-powered trucks on the road. “The established large industry players are also investing in R&D for greater electrification but long-haul freight movement presents some of the most daunting challenges to engineers because of the high energy demands placed on the vehicle,” continues Leggett. Leggett adds that AB InBev’s early interest shows that there will be no shortage of customers for Nikola and Tesla as soon as their freight distribution technology becomes commercially viable.

And plaudits must be given to AB InBev. Simply because a company with its size and scope has gotten into bed with Nikola, electric-powered trucks have instantly become more of a reality. In today’s world of start-up tech, only projects with visibility and profile gain the millions of dollars they require in funding to get off the ground.

That the brewer of Budweiser thinks Nikola is the future of road haulage will motivate others to back the project. But Nikola will need all the support it can get to deliver on its promise of a network of more than 700 hydrogen refuelling stations across the US and Canada. According to the US government[2], as of the start of this year there were just 39 in the US, 35 of which were in California. AB InBev may have brought star power to Nikola’s ambitions.

But there is a long way to go before it hits box-office gold.

References

  1. ^ Anheuser-Busch InBev (www.just-drinks.com)
  2. ^ According to the US government (www.energy.gov)



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