'Fast Follower' USA Truck Joins EV Parade, Buys 10


USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren is joining the electric vehicle movement.

The company announced Wednesday that it was acquiring 10 battery-electric trucks from Nikola Corp. of Salt Lake City through its Thompson Truck Centers subsidiary. Thompson, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, will provide the sale and service of the tractors.

USA Truck CEO James Reed said the company has been researching alternative-fuel tractors for several years and decided the time was right to make its first foray. The vehicle model USA Truck is acquiring, the Nikola Tre BEV, has a 350-mile range, can haul 82,000 pounds and takes two hours to recharge, according to the Nikola website.

As an electric-powered vehicle it has zero emissions.

“Our strategy in respect to technology has always been to be a fast follower,” Reed said. “We don’t believe there will be any single ubiquitous solution where you wake up one morning and everybody says, ‘Oh, you have to use these electric trucks.’ It is not practical based on the assets that are out there. Because we intend to be a fast follower, it behooves us to do some research and get to know the various options that are out there.”

Reed said USA Truck representatives met with Nikola executives and toured the company’s manufacturing facilities. Reed and the company’s maintenance team test-drove the BEV tractor.

The BEV tractor’s relative short-distance capabilities and Thompson’s service locations being in Tennessee mean the trucks will be put to use in USA Truck’s Arkansas-Tennessee-Mississippi theater of operations, Reed said.

“We will have to try them in a very specific configuration,” Reed said.

Reed said using zero-emission trucks is a good fit for the company’s environmental initiatives. The company reported about 1,900 available tractors at the end of its third quarter in September 2020, so 10 zero-emission trucks will constitute a tiny percentage of the fleet.

That’s an inescapable fact of zero-emission tractors in the transportation industry. Most companies and their executives would love to use environmentally safe vehicles, but until the technology makes them economically viable, they will be an impossible sell.

The BEV tractors reportedly sell for more than $250,000 each and, while USA Truck didn’t disclose the price it’s paying, Reed said there is an agreement with Nikola to make the cost “agnostic,” meaning the BEV tractors won’t cost more than a diesel tractor.

USA Truck’s agreement gives the company the option of purchasing another 90 tractors during the next two years. Reed said USA Truck hopes to put the first 10 into operation in the third quarter of fiscal 2022, which is roughly the summer months.

“I believe in the Hippocratic Oath of trucking: First, do no harm,” Reed said. “The metrics that will be important for these trucks are the exact same metrics that we look at for current trucks. This gives us a nice safety net to explore this without any undue concerns about economics. For us, all the same metrics apply. It has got to be at least as good as the viable option.”

For a publicly traded company, the most important motto is, of course, “First, lose no money.”

In September, Craig Harper appeared on University of Arkansas’ “Business Integrity School” podcast and spoke about how electric vehicles just aren’t economically feasible for large-scale use at companies. Harper is the chief sustainability officer at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell and a good friend of Reed’s.

“I consider Craig one of my closest friends in Arkansas, and I think he is wise and I think he is right,” Reed said. “You can’t compromise your company’s profitability to be on the leading edge. In a commoditized business, there is no first mover advantage. We understand that.

“I don’t want to put Nikola or Thompson Cat in a weird position, but they are being very forward-looking about this opportunity with us. It’s a win-win for us. They get their technology out there, and we get to try it.”