General

How Nikola portrayed revolutionary technologies to shareholders, but had nothing to show for

This is a draft for a paper that was written in Fall 2020. 

  Everyone at one point or another has come across something in technology that really wowed them and had them thinking something along the lines of “wow technology has come so far.” For a student or for those working in the technology sector sometimes things are too good to be true, where one might overstep their abilities with certain technology. Not to say innovation is dead within the whole technology field, but at some point, or another someone has said something not so accurate with regards to technological abilities. We all know that tech companies and sometimes startups aren’t the most ethical, or so speaking from the stigma surrounding tech companies selling off mass amounts of our own information.

For investors dumping money into a tech support there are a lot of things to look at, however there is never a telltale sign of how things will go. Not even the worlds smartest computers can comprehend the different factors and how they play into account, whether it be the market, the staff, the proprietary technology, costs, etc. The risk of investing into a startup, let alone a tech startup is very risky in nature. But should one comprehend the technology and tools they’re working with or claiming one could maybe grasp a better aspect of accounting one factor into the scenario of “will this be successful?”. This report will focus heavily on Trevor Milton, Founder and CEO of Nikola Motors as the center piece for this discussion. The actions by Milton and his company have led to large damages beyond just monetary for the market and some people. First let’s learn about himself, and his company.

Trevor Milton, 2009. After dropping out of college[1] he started an alarm sales company in Utah called St. George Security and Alarm, which he later then exited for $300,000. Details from the sale of the business show that the person who purchased the business indicated that Milton overpromised, meaning a loss for the purchaser. Milton had claimed that he was 50/50 partners with someone, his so called 50/50 partner only received $100,000. I’m no mathematician but that doesn’t add up. After this he launched an online classified ads website called uPillar.com, which failed. So he ended up start dHybrid with Mike Shrout who had developed some natural gas conversion technology, Shrout was to bring the technical knowledge while Milton was the businessman. Long story short Milton deceived a lot of his business partners at dHybrid and got himself into a massive lawsuit after entering an agreement with Swift Trucking to convert some 800 trucks, valuing the contract at around $16 million. Swift more or less got ‘played’ by some Milton and when annoyed sued dHybrid. However past the lawsuit in 2015 dHybrid was acquired by Worthington for $19.9 million, making another successful exit for Trevor Milton even though there were clearly some iffy wrong doings within dHybrid.

When Milton turned 29, he started Nikola Motor. Named Nikola Motors it was a play on Tesla Motors and Nikola Tesla (creator of the AC motor), it’s most obvious and largest competitor led by Elon Musk which now has an overly dominant share in that market. Nikola led by Trevor Milton had two man plans of powering vehicles, trucks, snowmobiles, and jet skis, hydrogen fuel cells or battery. Hydrogen fuel cells were always looked at as inferior to batteries given recent advancements in battery technology and what Tesla has been able to accomplish with such. The showcase of the company lies mostly within the Nikola Badger, an electric powered pickup truck set to compete with the Tesla Cyber-Truck. Additionally the Nikola Two is the company’s flagship semi-truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells, there is no other semi-truck on the road that is powered by anything besides diesel now, battery is sought out to be its replacement in the future but has been held back due to some restraints with battery technology.

With some background on Nikola, let’s jump back into the timeline of events. Nikola had arisen from the quiet in May 2016, and not quietly. Claiming to revolutionize the field of transportation Nikola posted a press release[2] promising to reveal the Nikola One, its semi-truck in December 2016. Come December 2016 bold claims [3]were made by Milton about the Nikola One, most importantly claiming its ‘fully functioning’. Let’s just say these claims made by Milton were entirely wrong, and the truck there was not functioning at all as reported on by Bloomberg[4], Milton not happy about such vowed to sue Bloomberg. But prior to it’s December showcase of the Nikola One semi-truck another press release was posted by Nikola Motors[5] claiming that the truck achieved zero emissions. The truck had not even began development in August yet claims like such were being made. Despite some uncertainty, and a lot of awe at what they have claimed to have achieved Nikola opened reservations for their Nikola One semi-truck in May of 2016.

Fast forwarding to 2018, things got interesting. With skepticism growing due to the lack of progress from the public eye since December 2016, Nikola teased via their Twitter in October 2017, “You may or may not see the Nikola truck moving in a commercial soon…” The first video released[6] in January 2018 was for Phillips, showing a short clip of Nikola One easing to a stop sign. Just one day later is when Nikola released the Nikola One Electric Semi Truck in Motion video[7], showing yes, the Nikola One in motion in a desert/country environment. With the caption of “Behold, the 1,000HP, zero-emission Nikola One semi-truck in motion.” People were stunned to see Nikola putting something together and further aweing the public. Amazing work! Great job! And in April 2019 Trevor Milton claimed that the company’s headquarters was completely off the grid[8], with 3.5 megawatts of solar installed on the roof! This is a motor company but also a motor company, they’re taking the world by surprise!

Fast forwarding to June of 2020, a month or two after I became aware about Nikola, it had its reverse merger making company public. In doing so shares spiked based on the very long list of impressive claims that Milton has reassured investors and the public about. I, myself invested my own money into Nikola prior to the reverse merger, psyched about the claims Milton had made and ready to see him chip away at the massive chunk that Tesla Motors holds of the market.

Everything Milton had said and claimed was a lie. Around August/September of 2020 claims started surfacing that the massively public and widely known video of “Nikola One in Motion” was fake. The truck wasn’t functioning. The truck never did function. And to film that video they simply rolled a chassis that was to look like the truck down a big hill. These claims as verified and made public by the Hindenburg Research report show exactly the location that it was filmed on maps, as well as their own testing in their car showing that in neutral they were able to obtain ~ 55mph with a SUV in neutral. Trevor Milton claimed that they were off the grid and powered entirely by solar panels. There were no solar panels. Satellite pictures from August 2019 to January 2020 show no signs of solar panels on the roof, even though these claims were made by Milton in 2019. As if there hasn’t been enough Nikola somehow got itself tangled in a battery tech firm intending to acquire it for its battery technology. Everyone but Nikola at that time knew that the president of the company was actually making national news just a few months prior for using his NASA expense account to hire numerous prostitutes. Ultimately Nikola tried to sue its way out of this issue. But what there’s more about Nikola. Text conversations published by Hindenburg’s report show a member of the Nikola One project team that the entire project was abandoned after the show after “serving its purpose to draw in credible partners and investment capital”. If that doesn’t paint a picture in your mind for what’s going on with Trevor Milton and Nikola, then I don’t know what will. Maybe it’s the electric cable snaked up the trucks tire while it was on stage, mind I remind you that Trevor Milton claimed multiple times that the truck is fully functioning. Emails from Nikola staff show Nikola’s last ditch effort before their 2016 event to make things look as good as possible, they were clearly desperate to get their ideas and claims across despite nothing in the ballpark of what they’re capable of.

So now in June of 2020, Trevor Milton has successfully made Nikola public on a massive bed of lies. Making the company public was a massive monetization event adding billions of liquidity and value from unknowing public market participants. And despite a lot of criticism and backlash he fought back, claiming at many points “cowards run, leaders stay.

On September 8th, 2020, Nikola and General Motors announced the formation of a strategic partnership[9], where the Nikola Badger, their electric pickup truck would be manufactured by General Motors. Groundbreaking news for Nikola being a new unproven company in the vehicle industry partnering up with one of the most well-known names. As a result of this partnership General Motors was to receive $2 billion equity state in Nikola in exchange for certain in-kind contributions. General Motors would engineer, validate, and build the Nikola Badger for both the battery electric version as well as the fuel cell version as apart of its in-kind services. This was a massive move by General Motors, a company which arguably is behind the curve in terms of future vehicle technology’s like battery electric vehicles and fuel cells, potentially looking to advance its share in the market. In doing so the Badger was anticipated to enter production by the year-end 2022. That was until the short seller report exposing Nikola was released[10] on September 10th, just 2 days after the partnership was publicized.

Cowards run? Well Trevor Milton ran. And he ran fast, and hard. Just 10 days after the release of the short seller report, Hindenburg Research, and trying to fend for himself he announced his resignation[11] as executive chairman on September 21st. He would then vanish across every social media platform known to man. Then to have two sexual misconduct allegations come against just some days later.

What about General Motors? Well. Now stuck in the middle of this mess, and massive fraud that is Nikola, there was a brief pause in the formality and signing of the partnership deal. Talks between the two came to a pause as General Motors reconsidered, however it was reported[12] on October 21st, 2020 that GM was ‘going forward’ with the Nikola partnership talks.

Technology companies, specifically startups that can be cash-strapped and looking to get a start, credibility, and most importantly funding, will go very far nowadays. Trevor Milton was the face of Nikola, and now gone Nikola has struggled. The current age of tech startups has an ever importance on social media it feels. Look at Elon Musk, his actions and personality that is strongly shown on Twitter feeds people into himself. People love Elon Musk, because of who he is, and because of that people have grown to love Tesla, SpaceX, and now some boring company that’s literally just digging tunnels. Don’t forget the flame throwers he sold as well, that totally aren’t flamethrowers. Trevor Milton wanted to be something, but in the process, he was more than aware of where he was going and what he was doing. The claims made by the short seller report, discussed in this report did not receive any if much of a response[13] from Nikola. Not all tech companies are out to get you, but Trevor Milton was for sure out to get cash out big time with Nikola. Time will only tell the damages that Trevor Milton was face as a result of this, as of mid-November 2020, a class action lawsuit has been brought against him for his misleading claims of Nikola’s abilities, the SEC has been investigating since July when some claims began to surface but nothing has been made public yet.

“I never deceived anyone” – Trevor Milton

  1. http://web.archive.org/web/20200910215055/https://twitter.com/nikolatrevor/status/1284189340516540416?s=20

  2. https://nikolamotor.com/press_releases/nikola-motor-company-formed-to-transform-u-s-transportation-industry-25

  3. https://youtu.be/wLidTCqAAtY?t=1050

  4. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-17/nikola-s-founder-exaggerated-the-capability-of-his-debut-truck

  5. https://nikolamotor.com/press_releases/nikola-one-truck-achieves-zero-emissions-29

  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0UxOyjbpyo

  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAToxJ9CGb8

  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9J8jizLI2s

  9. https://media.gm.com/media/us/en/gm/home.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2020/sep/0908-gen2fcs.html

  10. https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/nikola-stock-price-short-seller-report-alleges-years-deception-hindenburg-2020-9-1029579021

  11. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/21/nikola-founder-trevor-milton-to-voluntarily-step-down-as-executive-chairman.html

  12. https://www.detroitnews.com/story/business/autos/general-motors/2020/10/21/gm-going-forward-nikola-partnership-talks-trucks/6004567002/

  13. https://hindenburgresearch.com/nikola-response/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.