Nikola Founder Trevor Milton Wants to Build iPhone of Trucks

May 28, 2019 by Ryan ZumMallen, @Zoomy575M

Trevor Milton, founder and chief executive of hydrogen fuel cell truck developer Nikola Motor, wants to make his heavy-duty Class 8 semi-truck the “iPhone of trucking.”

As Nikola develops and tests the truck at its Phoenix, Ariz., headquarters in advance of a 2022 rollout, Milton is quick to point out advantages that he says hydrogen technology has over diesel trucks.

And, although Nikola also plans to have a battery-electric truck option, Milton questions the cost and sustainability of battery-electric trucks like the Tesla Semi.

Trucks.com caught up with Milton at the recent Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif. Here is an edited version of the conversation and his remarks to a panel at the conference.

How’s business?

We stopped taking preorders after $14 billion of orders, and I’m sold out for eight years right now. Customers wanted to place more orders, and we couldn’t do it. We refunded all of our deposits because we didn’t want people to think we were using their money to fund our company. We have no debt. That was an important thing to me.

Trevor Milton, Nikola Two

Milton with a Nikola Two, which he says “will beat a diesel truck in every single category.” (Photo: Nikola Motor)

Is Nikola the underdog compared with Daimler and Volvo?

Most of the greatest innovations don’t come from the biggest companies. There’s a lot of things we’re incredibly good at that the biggest companies are not. We’re able to fix the whole supply chain. Apple would not be Apple if the iPhone was just a phone. It was about building the best back end a phone has ever had. And that’s what we do with Nikola. I might beat Volvo and Daimler to market by 2-3 years, but if I don’t have a backbone that can’t be duplicated, I’m going to be squashed. That was an important thing for me – I had to build the iPhone of trucking. When you can fix the whole supply chain, then you can build a product that people are excited to follow.

What’s an “iPhone of trucking?”

We don’t just provide you with the truck. We provide you with all the fuel for the first million miles. When you sign on for Nikola we put in a hydrogen station with all your fuel covered, without any cost variation, for seven years. No one else will do that. You can’t control the cost of the electric grid. You can control the cost of hydrogen if you bring it in – that’s one of the advantages. You can build solar farms and guarantee there’s zero emissions going in. I’ll be honest: Fuel cells are not as efficient as electric. But if you produce your own power and your own hydrogen you can actually get it cheaper than diesel.

Why should buyers lease a Nikola for $900,000 and 1 million miles?

The Nikola Two will beat a diesel truck in every single category. It’s lighter than a diesel at 15,000 to 18,000 pounds and goes as far as a diesel at 500 to 750 miles in the real world. It has a 15- to 20-minute refuel time, 1,000 horsepower, air disc brakes on all six wheels and electric motors on all four rear wheels. If the power steering goes out we can still steer the truck – there’s not another truck in the world that can do that. We built this truck from the ground up to make sure that nothing was limited. Everything’s included: wheels, tires, wiper blades, white-glove service with maintenance and warranty – all of it. The idea was to bring the total cost cheaper than a diesel.

How did Nikola come up with the million-mile lease?

When you buy a diesel truck you pay $150,000 and you give Chevron $750,000 over a million miles. We knew all the money was going to the oil companies, and I wanted to stop the flow of it. When you think about how much money you have to set aside to pay for hydrogen infrastructure, it’s minimal compared to what Chevron and Shell get. We decided to bring all that in-house.

rendering of Nikola hydrogen station

Artist’s rendering of a Nikola hydrogen station, with solar roofs, islands for passenger cars in front, truck islands on the right and a Ryder maintenance facility on the left. (Rendering: Nikola Motor)


Why should fleets choose hydrogen over battery-electric trucks?

Around long-haul, you have more advantage on the hydrogen side because it’s lighter. It’s all about freight weight, or how much it costs to move a freight-ton per mile. There’s advantages to both infrastructures, but we’re mainly focused on the hydrogen side. We just offer battery-electric so we can tell people we’ll shoot you straight. There are areas where hydrogen does not make sense.

What is the future of battery-electric trucks?

The battery alone in an electric truck is going to cost $200,000. We’re shooting for an internal cost of $150,000 for our entire Nikola truck. Our truck also weighs less than the batteries in an electric truck. Now, electric is going to kick our butt in short-haul because it’s a really good solution, but electric trucks are not one size fits all. Right now, they’re digging up mines with child labor to pull lithium out to make batteries, and I’m tired of it. The only things that you can use and reuse indefinitely are water and hydrogen. It is the only resource that will not go away. That’s why we picked the hydrogen route.

Our hydrogen trucks also take a big battery, so I can’t point the finger at anyone else. I have the same problem everybody else has, and I’m trying to get rid of it. The electric powertrain is the powertrain of the future. How we store the energy for it has got to change. We’ve got to figure out a way, whether it’s through ultra-capacitors or whatever it may be, where you can store all that energy without disrupting these scarce resources. Then the price will come down low enough that we can finally win.

Nikola Water Activity Vehicle

Nikola is developing a personal watercraft and other smaller vehicles because they are easier to work on than semi-trucks, Milton says. And, they’re “a lot of fun.” (Photo: Alan Adler/Trucks.com)

Why is Nikola developing electric utility terrain vehicles and personal watercraft?

That division is a lot of fun. It’s mainly there to develop technology for our trucks. Advanced safety, stability controls and over-the-air updating are easier to test on a small vehicle than it is to take trucks to a track. We use the small power-sport industry almost like motor sports in the car industry. They develop Formula One engines and bring them into cars. It’s the same philosophy for us. We just took a different approach. Almost all of it translates over to trucks.

Will U.S. cities eventually adopt a ban on diesel emissions?

Europe just passed reductions for 30 percent on some of the emissions. That essentially obliterates diesel altogether. What happens is the California Air Resources Board and other groups say, “If it’s possible, why are we not doing it here?” It’s coming. They were just waiting for vehicles that prove it works. There’s no more ability to say it’s not real. They’ve reached out to Nikola multiple times saying, “Show us it works and we’ll mandate it.” We finally did. Now it’s up to them.

John O'Dell May 8, 2019
Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton watched his mom die of cancer, sold candy in the schoolyard, and dropped out of college. He says it all helped make him a successful entrepreneur.

2 Responses

  1. Philip

    I love the powertrain Nikola designed. Its capable of burning multiple kinds of fuel. It could burn diesel or unleaded and I think it should. The turbine generator burns the fuel more efficiently than current internal combustion engines and would have fewer emissions. That’s the best all around approach for the environment and our economy. I’m a truck driver and I know petroleum is a blessing from God. It provides us with asphalt roads and parking lots, plastics and rubber to make all the products we enjoy including cars and trucks. Hydrogen burns clean but would kill the world economy if it ever became the dominant source of fuel from my limited perspective. What would be the alternative to petroleum based plastics, rubber, asphalt, etc?


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