As he unveiled the Nikola One hydrogen fuel cell semi-truck in a warehouse on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Nikola Motor Co. chief executive Trevor Milton became visibly emotional.
After all, the 34-year-old entrepreneur has spent nearly five years developing the company and its all-encompassing strategy for start-to-finish clean freight.
Trucks.com caught Milton immediately after the launch event Thursday night where he detailed plans for the truck, which uses hydrogen fuel cell to power electric motors, and outlined his strategy to build a factory and network of charging stations in the U.S. A condensed and edited version of the interview follows.
The model Nikola One has the U.S. Xpress logo emblazoned all over it. Who else is buying the truck?
U.S. Xpress is one of the largest private fleets in America. Right now what we’ve seen is probably 70 percent fleet [orders and] 30 percent owner-operators. That’ll change in the future, there’s about 70 percent of the market or more is owner-operators. Fleets are trying to protect their market share, so over time more and more owner-operators will be taking delivery of the truck. It’ll take some time because fleets are going to book up pretty fast.
That’s quite confidential. They have relationships with other companies and they’re a little worried about that being affected. They’ll be making public announcements when they’re ready.
Your strategy was to come out with the big numbers off the bat but keep the truck itself under wraps until now. How did that work out?
It was absolutely the best way to go, 100 percent. I wanted people to focus on the vision, not the truck, for a while. I wanted them to focus what the truck actually did, what the purposes was, rather than taking a picture of it and taking it apart. It created a lot of hype and got people excited to come see it. I’d do it this way again over and over.
The Nikola One switched rather abruptly in August from being powered by a natural gas turbine to a hydrogen fuel cell. Why?
There really is no difference between the CNG turbine electric and the hydrogen fuel cell electric. They’re almost identical, they can almost fit in the same area. The difference was that with the fuel cell, there was no noise. The turbine is quite loud., A fuel cell is silent. There are no emissions with hydrogen but there is a little bit with natural gas. There’s no combustion, so there’s no emissions equipment, and you don’t have to calibrate the equipment to different altitudes. The cost of producing the fuel is almost identical, so why not go the route of 100-percent zero emissions with no noise and the same amount of energy output? For us it was a no-brainer.
The only person you follow on Twitter is Elon Musk of Tesla; you said earlier that he helped pave the way for Nikola. But he’s publicly referred to fuel cell technology for vehicles as “incredibly dumb.” Thoughts?
He’s a really smart guy and knows how to get things done. He doesn’t care so much about what people think. He’s more driven by strategy, which I really respect. Whether he agrees with me, well, I can look at someone’s qualities and pick out the good and not the bad. And he has a lot of really good qualities.
For cars, he’s right: fuel cell tech is a harder sell. There’s a little bit of a premium on it. It does take a little bit more business case to make hydrogen work on a car than pure electric. You can’t just get hydrogen in your garage. With trucks, though, you’re going long distances, the payback is so fast. The driver almost on day one is saving money.
Besides, it’ll be a long time before Elon Musk can spend spaceships to space without hydrogen on it. SpacEx runs off of it. You can’t apply technology to every platform. There are different applications.
Where did testing and production happen before the reveal? Is this the only model?
We don’t talk about what we have. I can tell you we’ve been able to test different parts of the powertrain independently to keep it off everybody’s radar. Now we’re going to test it in the Rockies over the next 18 months. We’ll put it through the worst conditions. We’ll run it from L.A. to Death Valley at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, then put it into 30 degrees below. We’ll assimilate it into a lot of different environments. Then we’ll take the full production vehicle and be on the road with it, driving it up hills.
We built this model in this facility. Between all the different partners we had, more than 500 people were working on it, with 35 people within Nikola at this facility.
Why seek financing and pre-orders rather than tap government subsidies?
I wanted to build a business plan that wasn’t predicated on a government tax credit so that no matter who won the election, we would still succeed. Both candidates had very different views. We’re self-funded with some really incredible investors, and we’re getting into some big rounds next year. Across the board, I own 87 percent of the company, and the rest is employees and other investors. We’ll disclose the valuation later, around the first of the year.
How many patents do you have anyway?
We’ve got a lot, a whole bookful. We have patents for the drive train, for the suspension, the mid-entry door and different panoramic views. By the time the thing comes to market, we’ll be in the thousands. It’ll pretty much prevent most people from coming into the hydrogen over-the-road market and competing with us.
Are you concerned about a Trump effect on alternative energy? He doesn’t seem to be its biggest fan.
I’ve never spoken with him. But I’ve seen a lot of investment come in over the last week or two. There’s an onslaught of people coming in. It wouldn’t have mattered if Clinton won. People just wanted it to be over.