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Nikola dropped claim on truck weight after US investigations began

The tractor on Nikola’s first truck to enter production will weigh more than diesel-powered vehicles, contrary to previous claims on the company’s website that disappeared the week federal prosecutors began investigating the company.

The electric truck start-up said six months ago that the battery-powered Nikola Tre, with a 300-mile range designed for regional routes, would be “as light as comparable diesels”, allowing truck operators “to transport more goods on each load”. US regulation caps the weight of a fully loaded truck at 80,000 pounds, so lighter vehicles free up room for revenue-generating cargo.

But the Tre’s tractor — the machine towing the trailer carrying freight — weighs 29,800 pounds, according to magnified footage from a recent Nikola promotional video. The tractor for a diesel truck weighs about 17,000 pounds.

The weight claim was removed from Nikola’s website on September 16, six days after short seller Hindenburg Research released a report describing the company as “an intricate fraud”, sending the share price plummeting and prompting investigations by US authorities. Nikola disputes the characterisation but admitted the company and its founder Trevor Milton made a number of “inaccurate” statements.

The Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed Nikola and its chief executive Mark Russell on September 14. A day later, the Financial Times reported that the Department of Justice was also investigating the company.

Nikola said the statement’s removal from the website was unrelated to the short seller’s report.

The company, based in Phoenix, Arizona, released a video last week describing validation testing for the Tre, which it said will be delivered to the first customers in the fourth quarter. Chief financial officer Kim Brady told investors that Nikola would deliver between 50 and 100 vehicles in the quarter, generating $15m to $30m in revenue.

In the video, a whiteboard is briefly shown in the background of one shot. Zooming in on the board shows the scribbled phrases “Tre Weights” and “Tractor 29800”.

Nikola declined to comment on the video but said the truck will have a gross vehicle weight falling between 40,000 and 57,000 pounds.

“Tre [battery electric vehicle] final weights will depend on a number of factors, including battery capacity,” the company said. “We will give further updates to the market as . . . we finalise specifications.”

Batteries are heavier than diesel fuel, a problem confronting every manufacturer trying to build a long-haul electric truck. A paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated a battery pack capable of powering a long-range tractor-trailer would weigh 20,000 to 30,000 pounds, cutting the amount of freight a truck can carry.

The weight of the tractor can be offset by making changes to the trailer, such as using lighter tyres. There are also larger factors at play besides weight that could discourage potential customers from buying any electric vehicle in the short-term: limited US charging infrastructure and higher prices. A diesel truck starts at $140,000, while the average Nikola Tre will sell at $300,000.

Still, the tractor weight may turn off some customers. Rick Mihelic, director of emerging technologies at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said the vehicle would work for trucking companies that routinely carried lighter loads, such as snack food or furniture. It would hold less appeal for general freight carriers packing their vehicles to the 80,000-pound limit.

“A heavy tractor like that will be in a niche marketplace,” he said.


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