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Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton: “I wanted to build the locomotive semi-truck”

Nikola Motor Company has made a large splash in the commercial vehicle space as it tries to prove that diesel fuel is not the only power source for moving goods across the country. Its Nikola hydrogen-electric tractors, formally introduced for the world to see and touch at Nikola World 2019 on April 16, 2019, at WestWorld in Scottsdale, Arizona, are the most obvious results of the company’s work, but who is Nikola Motor?

Founded in 2014 by Trevor Milton, the company lists as its mission to “transform the transportation industry while improving our employees’ lives and leaving the world a better place.”

It lists disruption and innovation as one of its core values. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Nikola Motor has raised almost $300 million to date as investors bet big on Milton’s plan, which ironically enough, started out not with hydrogen but turbines.

In 2016, the company announced it would achieve zero emissions with a turbine-electric hybrid truck. As fuel-cell technology advanced, though, the turbine was ditched in favor of hydrogen, and interest took off.

Prior to founding Nikola, Milton spent time at Worthington Industries and before that worked in research & development, product development and OEM sales for dHybrid Systems, a natural gas fuel system provider.

The founding of Nikola did not happen overnight, though, it actually dates back to a time when a six-year-old boy was bothering his railroad-working father and was sent to see a train engineer.

“My dad inspired me with trains,” Milton said during the Nikola World 2019 event. His father was a manager with Union Pacific, so he grew up around trains. At six years old, that train engineer told him someday he would see a train semi.

“It was a seed,” Milton recalled. “A seed that cultivated over my life. A seed that created the desire to build things in my life.”

Receiving plenty of encouragement from his parents, Milton went down the entrepreneur road, founding several companies before landing on Nikola Motor.

 Nikola Motor founder and CEO Trevor Milton shared this photo during Nikola World 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 16, 2019, of the company’s early employees working in his basement. ( Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves ) Nikola Motor founder and CEO Trevor Milton shared this photo during Nikola World 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 16, 2019, of the company’s early employees working in his basement. ( Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves )

“I wanted to build the locomotive semi-truck,” he said. “All my experiences were for tonight. I’ve dedicated my entire life for today.”

When it came time to build a team at Nikola, Milton identified his weaknesses and tried to surround himself with those that filled the gaps. Like many startup companies, work began in his basement, with computers spread throughout his house.

He had one rule, though. “When we first started the company, one of the requirements I had was that none of my engineers could have worked for a trucking company before,” Milton said. “I wanted engineers who [believed in the possible].”

Milton said he believed engineers in the space were “trained” to think and design in a singular way and he didn’t want to develop a truck like others had; he wanted to disrupt the space.

Today, of course, Nikola Motor is no longer in Milton’s basement, and has raised plenty of capital to fulfill his dream of building that train semi. Nikola completed an oversubscribed Series C funding round of $210 million last fall and is in the process of securing another round that could total $1.5 billion, which is being led by Morgan Stanley. Milton said he thinks this round will also be over-subscribed.

Nikola has committed to spending $16 million to purchase equipment for its fuel cell development laboratory, but that is really just a down payment on the plan. The total investment is expected to reach several hundred million dollars, the company said.

 Nilkola Motor Company employees gather on stage during Nikola World 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 16, 2019, ( Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves ) Nilkola Motor Company employees gather on stage during Nikola World 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 16, 2019, ( Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves )

“It is critical that we move fast and have the best equipment as part of our truck development process,” said Mark Russell, Nikola Motor Company’s president. “By creating our own facility, Nikola will be able to test and validate its fuel cell components in half the time it would take other OEMs and third-party labs.”

The laboratory will work on advancing fuel cell research and development, including developing, validating and testing Nikola’s fuel cell system. It will include climate-controlled chambers and dynamometers to test components independently or as a complete powertrain system.

It will eventually include some 300 engineers, Milton said.

In March, the company closed on 400 acres of land in Pinal County at Inland Port Arizona in Coolidge. The company’s planned manufacturing facility will grow out of this site, leading to up to 2,000 jobs by 2024, the company said in the initial announcement.

Nikola is not just about trucks, though, the company is also involved in military and racing vehicles. Last fall, the company announced that its Powersports division had received a contract from SOFWERX of Tampa, Florida, to develop a roadmap and demonstration of autonomous and mixed-autonomy capabilities with the Nikola Reckless vehicle.

The Reckless UTV is a totally electric vehicle that can go from 0 to 100 kilometers-per-hour in just over three seconds. The vehicle has a modular capability that can plug and play with a Remote Weapons Station (RWS) and military drones. The near silent Nikola Reckless UTV has undergone off road testing with the United States Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, California.

SOFWERX was created under a Partnership Intermediary Agreement between Doolittle Institute and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

“This contract highlights Nikola’s innovative approach to UTV design. The military asked for a technologically superior electric vehicle and Nikola answered the call.” said Andrew Christian, Nikola’s vice president of defense, Nikola Powersports. “We’ll prove that the Reckless can perform under four grueling scenarios including unmanned perimeter security with remote monitor, supply run, control recovery and autonomous multi-vehicle missions.”

The Nikola team is building a remote-control function for the vehicle and support aerial and ground robots that can interface with and deploy from the Reckless vehicle.

It is also working on the NZT, a 590-horsepower racing vehicle that goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds and can drive up to 150 miles on a single charge, running on a 125-kWh lithium ion battery pack.

To Milton, the expansion into powersports and marine craft is a natural extension and a way to achieve his ultimate goal: produce zero emissions in transportation.

Everything about the company is designed to produce zero emissions. The expectation is that the new manufacturing plant in Arizona will be powered by wind and solar power, and the hydrogen fuel itself will be produced with zero emissions.

“This is our time to shine,” Milton said.

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at