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by Carl Batisweiler, Euro am Sonntag
A.Techno sound thunders from the loudspeakers, brightly colored lights flash brightly through the hall of the former railway works in northern Italy’s industrial center, Turin, which is bathed in artificial fog. Then large walls of mirrors turn aside, and Trevor Milton proudly presents – a truck. Sure, the articulated lorry has a modern design, but actually it looks like most of the other trucks that roll on the streets of Europe. The special thing about the truck, for which the 38-year-old American received enthusiastic applause from guests flown in from all over Europe in December 2019, when crowds were still normal, is that the “Nikola Tre” is powered by hydrogen instead of diesel.
In fact, as those present know, they are applauding a kind of Potemkin village. Because what is on the stage in the spotlight houses neither the electric motors that are supposed to drive the truck, nor the celebrated centerpiece: the fuel cell, which is supposed to provide the electricity for the drive from hydrogen. Nevertheless, as in a church service, Trevor Milton prays to his sheep about the merits of the blessed truck: no emissions except a few drops of water, fully digitalized, fully networked, 750 miles range with one tank of fuel, and in general the Nikola is the glorious future of goods transport.
Milton easily wins the hearts of his listeners in Turin. Just as he managed to collect around three billion US dollars from investors for his hydrogen truck project in previous years. And how he was able to get investors excited about the Nikola IPO in June of this year.
The man has charisma – and experience in winning people over to an idea, a belief. After high school, his church sent Milton, a native of the Mormon state of Utah, on a mission. For 18 months he went from door to door in Brazil to proclaim the right path to salvation to the people there.
Back in the United States, the son of a wealthy railroad manager and real estate agent, he began studying economics at Utah Valley State College. But at university – and he has this in common with other extremely successful company founders in the recent past – it didn’t last long for him. After a semester he gave up and devoted himself to his dream: Milton wanted to make traffic more environmentally friendly. But not how Elon Musk, who competes with established car manufacturers with its Teslas. After all, you can also travel in an environmentally friendly way privately by bus, train or bike, says Milton. If you really want to save the environment, you have to revolutionize the transport of goods.
Start-up in Arizona’s desert
Of course, Milton has copied a few things from Musk. Because Tesla, the last name of the ingenious inventor, physicist and electrical engineer, was already taken, the truck company is named after his first name: Nikola. Elon Musk’s system of securing large shares in the companies he founded, but having the capital for the necessary investments from other companies, was transferred to Nikola. Missionary Milton can present, and he doesn’t do that in a turtleneck sweater or hoodie, as the dot-com scene likes to dress, Mormon Milton wears a suit and white shirt.
“Even as a child I preferred to play with trucks than with trains, as my father would have liked to see it,” he explains his early soft spot for the truck industry. “But I always thought the black diesel soot that the truckers pulled behind them was bad too.” From this his first business idea after the university interlude emerged. In 2010, he founded Milton Hybrid Systems in Salt Lake City, which developed fueling systems for trucks powered by natural gas.
This is how Worthington Industries from Ohio became aware of Milton. The steel group produces, among other things, gas and air pressure tanks around the world, also for the vehicle industry. In 2014, Worthington bought Milton Hybrid.
The young entrepreneur had made his first million and started Nikola in Phoenix, Arizona. He was quickly able to inspire experts from the truck industry for his vision of the hydrogen-powered truck, who gave up their well-paid jobs to work on the really big new thing at Nikola. Finally, as the new Nikola boss, Chief Operating Officer Mark Russel, who had made a name for himself there with the establishment and restructuring of subsidiaries, moved from Worthington to the start-up in the desert.
The first investor funds that Milton had collected from Worthington, Nel Hydro, a Norwegian producer of hydrogen filling stations, or the US hedge fund ValueAct were enough to release a model in 2018 and put a prototype of the Nikola Two on the wheels in 2019. The design of the truck is completely tailored to the tastes of the drivers in the US market: long nose and a large sleeping cabin.
Horses pull the truck
The first big Nikola presentation in front of 2,000 people in the USA then turned out to be somewhat unusual: Milton drove up in Prototype Two, which, however, (due to lack of propulsion) was driven by eight of the beer company’s brewery horses Budweiser was pulled. “The horses symbolize how America was built,” Milton told the audience. “And just as gasoline and diesel once replaced horses, a new drive will soon make them obsolete too: hydrogen.” There was a good reason that the Two’s trailer was packed with beer: Budweiser’s mother Anheuser-Busch InBev has already ordered 800 of the hydrogen vehicles.
But not only the beer brewer wants to cart its brew on the US highways in an environmentally friendly way, the fleet operator US Express has also expressed interest. Mark Russel speaks of pre-orders worth a total of ten billion dollars – and explains the special business model: “We sell the Type 2 in the USA for one US dollar per mile. That is the all-inclusive price for seven years with 700,000 miles . Hydrogen, maintenance, service – everything is included. The overall price is attractive again because it is calculable. And our customers have no oil or electricity price cycle. ”
The Nikola Two is to be built in a factory in Arizona. And for the mobility of customers, who usually drive fixed tours with the fuel cell trucks, the partner from Norway in Arizona and the particularly environmentally conscious state of California are building at least ten of their own hydrogen filling stations. In the southwest of the USA in particular, a lot of excess solar energy is currently being generated, which is then to be used to produce hydrogen. By 2022, Nikola wants to produce eight tons of hydrogen per day from renewable energy at every filling station – enough for the annual consumption of 250 trucks.
Nikola wants to use a slightly different model in Europe. Here the Americans are working together with the truck manufacturer Iveco, which belongs to CNH Industrial. Russel: “We looked for partners globally and found what we needed at Iveco. They are a relatively small truck manufacturer, but their culture suited us.” The Italians already offer trucks that run on natural gas, and in the record time of three months they managed to develop the first prototype of the Nikola Tre based on their new S series. The fuel cell is located where the diesel engine is otherwise.
Wind power to hydrogen
But actually the Tre is a German: The trucks are built in the Iveco plant in Ulm, because the German engineers there have built up a lot of specialist knowledge, for example for the fire engines from Magirus. The fuel cell is supposed to be supplied by Bosch, who also bought it from Trevor Milton.
Mark Russel already knows how the hydrogen supply should run in Northern Europe: “On my flights to Denmark and Norway, I saw the wind farms in the North and Baltic Seas. And how many wind turbines were switched off. All the wind power that is not used , could be used to convert hydrogen and thus also to store energy. That is really climate-neutral. ”
That may not be the cheapest or the most efficient way, but it is certainly the best. “In Groningen, for example, there are large salt caverns in which natural gas has previously been stored, which can also or entirely be used to store hydrogen. In our opinion, the existing gas lines can also be used for the transport of hydrogen,” added Russel .
In Europe, too, Trevor Milton has already collected a large number of orders for his trucks, for example from Jacky Perrenot. The company based in Saint-Donat-sur-l’Herbasse in the Département Drôme with 3,500 employees primarily handles the transport of fresh produce for the French trading groups Casino (Saint-Etienne) and Carrefour (Paris), including their various branches in Poland, Romania and Turkey and in Greece. Perrenot has ordered 360 Iveco-Ss, including some all-electric Nikola Tre, which are equipped with a 2.2-ton lithium-ion battery for test purposes. Company boss Perrenot: “I can’t wait until we run entirely on hydrogen.” That is why he has his own hydrogen filling station built for around 1.5 million euros.
As successful as Trevor Milton has been with his promises of blessing – now he really has to accelerate and get his hydrogen Nikolas onto the road. Because the competition never sleeps. The start-up Hyzon Motors in the US state of New York has already copied Nikola’s business model and wants to develop a giant truck with fuel cells – 50 meters long and 140 tons heavy. Pre-series production of the roadtrains is scheduled to start in April 2021 and the first models will be delivered in Australia. However, Hyzon doesn’t have much more to offer than a few computer-animated images of the vehicles. But that’s how Trevor Milton started.
Nikola has not yet delivered a single one of the planned trucks with electric drives based on fuel cells. Many have already been ordered – that arouses the imagination of investors. The share (US 654 110 105 0) shot to astronomical heights when it went public, which ran via a so-called SPAC, a kind of stock market shell. In the meantime, the euphoria has cooled down a bit, but the share is still too hot.
Trevor Milton was born in 1981 and grew up in Utah. The son of a railroad manager and real estate agent, he dropped out of business school at Utah Valley State College after one semester. In 2014 he founded Nikola. His fortune is now estimated at seven billion US dollars. The father of three children lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
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Image sources: Isaac Sloan / NikolaMotor