‘They just want to rip you apart... it’s kind of fun’
Parking his electric trucks on Tesla’s lawn has sent trolls into overdrive, the founder of Nikola tells Olivia Rudgard in San Francisco ‘It doesn’t make sense to build a million cars you lose money on. It makes sense to build 10,000 you make a lot of mone
Trevor Milton is ready for internet fame. The entrepreneur is unfazed by the speed of his rise to online notoriety, and his hydrogen-powered truck company’s new status as one of the most valuable automakers in the world.
“It’s been incredible, right? Very few people in life ever get to experience what we’re going through,” Nikola’s founder and executive chairman says, speaking as he prepares to open pre-orders for the Badger, its pick-up truck.
Founded in 2014 and for years just one among many electric vehicle startups vying for dominance in a tiny but crowded market, Nikola came to wider attention last month after it went public and almost immediately became more valuable than established automakers including Fiat Chrysler and Ford. However, its value has since fallen again to less than $20bn (£16bn). It hasn’t sold a single vehicle and doesn’t expect to see any revenue until next year.
It has also attracted attention because of Milton’s own antics. In the past few weeks, he has threatened to sue a Bloomberg journalist, posted numerous detailed Instagram stories showing off his company’s technology in defiance of “haters” who doubt him, and invited some of his mouthiest Twitter critics to come and tour his company’s facilities. This will feel very familiar to anyone who has followed the electric vehicle cle world and its most famous protagonist, ist, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla. a.
Musk is an entrepreneur repreneur but he’s also a social media ia personality. His memes and jokes, s, such as mocking short sellers by selling elling red satin shorts, have made e him wildly popular but also make him m a target for critics.
Is Milton, 38, deliberately following the same playbook ok as his rival at Tesla? “It’s just natural. atural. I don’t follow Elon. I think nk when you start to innovate and you become a true entrepreneur ntrepreneur and you’re pushing ng the limits, your natural ral tendency is to speak eak a certain way and to deal with criticism a certain way, and cut through ough all the crap a certain n way.”
Both men see themselves as representatives of a new, more exciting auto to industry that has grown up to replace the fuddy-duddy legacy car brands. Both run companies named after the famed Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla. Sceptics see them as peddlers of exaggerated promises and beneficiaries of a bubble.
While Tesla’s battery electric vehicles are owned by hundreds of thousands already, Nik Nikola’s fleet of hydrogen-powered tru trucks are so far more of a hypothetical prospect. Hydrogen-powered vehicles work by using the gas, comb combined with oxygen, to run an elec electric motor. Detractors who com compare them unfavourably with the their batterypowered equivalents a argue that they are more expensive, le less efficient and difficult to fuel, given the need to deliver the explo explosive gas to keep charging statio stations topped up. Nikola’s sol solution is to install electr electrolysis plants at the stations to make hydrogen o on-site. It says hydrogen i is the best green alternative to the diesel widely use used in the trucking in industry, and a better solu solution than the heavy batt batteries which currently limit the range of electric lorries to around 30 300 miles. Nikola says its trucks will be able to go up to 750 miles between fuel stops, and has ambitious plans to install hundreds of hydrogen charging stations across the US, Europe and the UK. Having this infrastructure will be key to making the fuel anything more than a niche curiosity, something that companies including General Motors and BMW have so far failed to do.
“We vertically integrated the entire supply chain. It’s very similar to Amazon,” Milton said earlier this year when explaining how the company could eventually reach a $100bn valuation.
The two markets that Nikola is going after – consumer pick-up trucks and commercial lorries – are potentially huge but have not yet been broken by electric automotive manufacturers. Milton, who like Musk is a college dropout and a serial entrepreneur, sees his online personality as key to getting people interested in his company.
“That is what sets you apart from these big legacy companies like Ford, GM or Volkswagen. They’re boring. It’s very difficult to get excited about their brands.
“They have really cool cars, but you don’t know who the CEO is. You have no relationship. You don’t know what their family is like, you don’t know what they’re doing on the weekend.” What about the drama and criticism that come along with that level of prominence?
Milton has already become an online target for Tesla’s most dedicated super-fans, a community well-known for its unsparing treatment of anyone it believes might pose a threat to the company.
He’s even accused his detractors of being paid antagonists deliberately stoking fear.
“It’s hard to be vulnerable and talk to people about the things that are difficult because then you get these people who just attack you with it,” he said in a recent Instagram story. “They just want to rip you apart.”
But in our interview, Milton insists that he’s enjoying it. “It’s kind of fun. It makes people love you more. The more they attack you, the more they love you.”
Nikola, primarily an HGV company, might have been regarded as no threat to Tesla, which makes and sells high-end electric cars, but for Milton’s recent decision to stray on to Muskian turf with the Nikola Badger, a pick-up truck for the consumer market which opened for pre-orders last week.
The Badger is a more traditionallooking vehicle than Tesla’s own pick-up, the Cybertruck, which is huge and angular and made from stainless steel. Both companies are trying to steal the crown of America’s dominant pick-up truck, the Ford F150. The Detroit giant sold almost a million trucks last year.
“There’s no money in building cars. There’s a lot of money in building Ford F150s,” says Milton.
“The Ford F150 market has always been profitable through every downturn, and so if we can take that crown from them, we’ve managed to touch the consumer, the average investor, create people that love us and still be profitable.”
Profit, not growth, is the most important metric, argues Milton: “It doesn’t make sense to go and build a million cars you lose money on. It makes a lot of sense to go and build 10,000 cars that you make a lot of money on. You can’t be environmentally sustainable if you’re not financially sustainable, because eventually you’ll fail.
“You will eventually run out of money, the markets will stop giving you money and all of a sudden you’re firing 40,000 employees and their families that have mortgages, and those 40,000 families are going to hate you, hate everything about clean energy; they’re going to tell you that you lied to them.”
Trevor Milton, the executive chairman of Nikola, is pinning his hopes on the newly launched Badger pick-up truck, above