Nikola, ‘Tesla of Trucks,’ Now Faces Off with Actual Tesla Trucks

July 21, 2016 by Tony Dreibus

The so-called Tesla of Trucks is about to go head-to-head with the actual Tesla of Trucks.

Nikola Motor, which is readying a hybrid electric big-rig, and uses Nikola Tesla’s first name as its own, welcomed the competition. But its chief executive also questioned the strategy of Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of Tesla Motors.

The Tesla Semi is part of Musk’s so-called Master Plan for his electric car company. Released Wednesday, the plan takes the company heavily into solar energy with the proposed acquisition of SolarCity and it also calls for Tesla to develop electric big-rigs and pickup trucks.

Musk didn’t offer many specifics but said Tesla will build “heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport,” both of which are in the “early stages” of development and should be unveiled next year.

“We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate,” Musk wrote on the Tesla website.

Such a plan puts Tesla in direct competition with Nikola Motor. The Salt Lake City company is readying a natural gas-electric hybrid semi for release on Dec. 2, earning the “Tesla of Trucks” nickname.

Trevor Milton, chief executive of Nikola, told that Musk’s announcement can only help his company.

“This brings legitimacy to Nikola Motor,” Milton said. “It brings people to the company and says this is a legitimate market and a legitimate idea.”

Milton said engineers have designed the Nikola One truck from the ground up, something he feels puts his company 15 years ahead of his competition because traditional truck-builders can’t simply put a hybrid engine into an existing chassis.

The company hopes to have a commercial vehicle on the road sometime in 2019.

Milton said he’s skeptical about some of Musk’s claims. Development likely will take several years rather than several months from the early stages to completion, Milton said, so he’s not sure how it’ll be unveiled next year.

He’s also questions the technology considering an all-electric motor under load will have a restrictively short range. Instead, he’s betting Tesla will develop a smaller, urban-centric short-haul vehicle to “run around town.”

“It’d be impossible to run an electric truck over the road without some sort of generator on board,” Milton said.

If Tesla were to put a full megawatt battery in the truck, 11 times the size of what goes into its more than the P90D sports sedan, there still would be only get enough power to go four or five hours, far below what is needed for long-haul trucking, Milton said.

“Battery development would have to advance tenfold to go pure electric with no generator,” he said.

Musk’s plan comes a decade after he published his first outline that called for developing a company with low sales volume electric sports cars that would fund the development of a larger vehicle and eventually an affordable compact electric car. Tesla plans to launch production of its $35,000 Model 3 sedan next year.

Musk said now that he’s accomplished his original goals — though the company has yet to turn a profit — he can take aim at his next several objectives.

Musk didn’t disclose how much Tesla would invest in the truck projects.

Adam Jonas, an analyst at Morgan Stanley Research, said in a report to investors on Thursday that developing a semi-truck would require an investment into the billions of dollars.

Nikola and Tesla are both named after Nikola Tesla, the electrician and inventor who helped found the alternating current electrical supply.

Milton has said he respects Musk partly because of what he’s done to bring legitimacy to the electric vehicle market.

Without Tesla Motors, Nikola would be having a more difficult time convincing investors that an electric vehicle is not only possible but affordable, said Milton. He is in the process of an A-round of financing in which he’s seeking to raise $300 million to $500 million.

Still, Milton said even if Tesla were to get a truck on the market next year, there’s enough market share to go around. The same is true if the industry’s largest companies develop electric trucks in the near futures.

“The market’s huge, it’s massive,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of people forced to get into this because they have shareholders and they want to raise capital.”

Nikola Motor is far enough ahead of the competition that the company will secure a foothold before others can even enter the market, he said.

Tesla’s announcement and increasing competition from companies such as BYD, Paccar, Volvo and Daimler “don’t keep (him) up at night,” Milton said.

“This is good news for us,” he said “It’s going to be easier to raise money and build our company and it brings legitimacy to the industry. We’re going to be the leader in electric trucks for 10 or 20 years, hopefully longer. We have our money, we have our trucks, we have no debt.”

Milton said last month Nikola has secured about 7,000 deposits of $1,500 for the hybrid truck — which he values at about $330,000 each — totaling about $2.3 billion in pre-orders. By the time Nikola One is unveiled, the company will have a valuation of about $3.5 billion, he predicted Thursday.


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