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How Hyliion’s Under-30 CEO Aims To Compete With Tesla And Nikola In The Electric-Powered Big Rig Revolution


When Thomas Healy was selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017, his startup, Hyliion, was still in the early stages of developing an innovation he called the “e-axle”—that’s an electrified axle, powered by lithium-ion batteries, that could be incorporated into the drivetrain of a traditional Class 8, long-haul truck. 

Healy saw the e-axle as a hybrid bolt-on solution for bringing electric power to the world of long-haul trucking. The e-axle could be retrofitted onto old trucks, or built into new ones. The benefits were clear—the e-axle would provide a helping hand, adding power and torque that allowed the diesel block to work more efficiently, improving fuel mileage and lowering emissions, while also capturing power via regenerative braking.

Automotive parts giant Dana Inc. was intrigued, and in March 2019 made an equity investment into Hyliion, and together they are manufacturing and marketing the device to Dana’s slate of customers, including truck giants Volvo, Navistar and Peterbilt. 

It’s a pointedly different approach to the electrification of heavy-duty trucks than that pursued by investor darlings Tesla

TSLA
and Nikola, which have sought to design an all-new truck from the ground up. Healy says he decided early on there was no need to try to do it better than existing truck makers who already had big factories and happy customers. “The goal was to be able to allow them to still buy the truck they already know and love and have it with a brand-new power train that will really revolutionize their logistics,” says Healy, 28. 

This caught the attention of Vincent Cubbage, at investment company Tortoise, which in 2018 had floated a so-called blank-check shell company called Tortoise Acquisition Corp. (NYSE: SHLL) to look for a company worth merging with. 

Cubbage says his team already loved the electric truck space and was drawn to Hyliion because Healy wasn’t trying to design from scratch, didn’t need to build a factory (thanks to Dana) and crucially, unlike all-electric Tesla and hydrogen-powered Nikola, didn’t need to spend money on setting up new fueling infrastructure. “When we think about how customers actually want to adopt new technology, they want to isolate the technology,” says Cubbage, not replace their entire kit. 

In June, Healy agreed to a merger. Once completed by the end of the third quarter, Tortoise will be renamed Hyliion, with new ticker symbol HYLN and $560 million in cash to fund development of both the e-axle as well as Hyliion’s second offering, called Hypertruck ERX. 

Hyliion’s Hypertruck concept involves an all-electric drivetrain utilizing Dana’s electric motor, inverter and axle technologies. The truck’s batteries are fueled by onboard tanks of compressed natural gas. With some 700 CNG stations already operating nationwide, there’s no need to build out expensive superchargers or hydrogen infrastructure. Kuwait-based logistics company Agility has already placed an order for 1,000 Hypertrucks. First deliveries are slated for 2021. 

Ryan Laskey, SVP of commercial vehicle drive systems at Dana, says both the initial hybrid e-axle offering and their all-electric drivetrain are “agnostic” when it comes to what kinds of engines or fuels they will work with, giving Hyliion fewer barriers to success. The real secret sauce that Hyliion brings, says Laskey, is its software, the algorithms that monitor engine performance and road conditions to optimize efficiency—work that Healy began at Carnegie Mellon more than five years ago.

Healy says trucking fleets told him: “You can’t deliver a solution that weighs a lot more than a conventional truck does because that’s just going to cut into our cargo capacity.” So the Hypertruck features a small battery pack, a small generator, “with a really strong software algorithm behind it.”

Laskey lauds Healy for being customer-focused beyond his years. “He gives the customer something they don’t even know they want yet.” Whether the electricity to power the drivetrain comes from the grid, diesel or gasoline, the result, he says, is 25% better fuel economy.

“The main difference is you don’t have to plug it into the grid to charge the battery,” says Healy. “You can use onboard natural gas generator.” And when fueled with renewable natural gas (i.e., captured from hog farms or landfills), the truck can operate with negative carbon emissions.

So far Hyliion has burned through about $40 million in funding and has minimal revenues. But if the company catches favor with investors in anywhere close to the way that Tesla and Nikola have, it could make 28-year-old Healy a billionaire before too long (Nikola has already spawned two). According to SEC filings, upon completion of the deal, Healy will own 22% of the stock in the company, which, at a current $19 per share, sports a market cap of nearly $600 million.

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