09 Aug 2020 20:46 IST

Why Nikola is piqued by the fragrance of Musk

As Musk perfects EVs, Milton’s Nikola Motor is betting on hydrogen fuel-cells to power cargo movement

Since we have all been battling the swirls of Covid-19 we — at least, most of us — missed an interesting development that took place in the United States. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s come back to this interesting development in the US in a moment. First, a little peek into history.

Between 1856 and 1943, there lived a man called Nikola Tesla. This Serbian, who lived the better part of his life in the US, was a rare genius. He experimented successfully with several electro-mechanical devices, licensed his technology to Westinghouse, and made good money. He was often a rival of Thomas Alva Edison, his former boss for a brief period.

An apocryphal story has it that once Einstein was asked how it felt to be a genius, to which the great scientist is said to have replied, “I don’t know, ask Nikola Tesla.” After his death in 1943, during which time he was practically broke after having spent all his money on more experiments, he was forgotten. Yes, the General Conference on Weights and Measures, named a unit ‘tesla’ – for magnetic flux – in his honour, but that was it.

Musk and Milton

Credit should go to Elon Musk, the brazenly enterprising entrepreneur, for bringing Nikola Tesla back into the public narrative. Today, ‘Tesla’ is a household name, and stands for battery factories and electric vehicles.


In 2014, another American called Trevor Milton, then only 32, decided to dabble in a highly disruptive technology, which had not even quite left the laboratories then: hydrogen powered vehicles. Elon Musk had already appropriated the name Tesla. So, Milton was left with the other name — Nikola. And Nikola Motor came into being.

So, between them, Milton and Musk brought Nikola Tesla back into public consciousness and we have to thank them both for that.

Now, to come back to the “interesting development in the US”. In June, Nikola Motor, which by the way, is yet to produce a vehicle, listed its shares in the market. The market gave it a valuation of a whopping $12 billion, making Trevor Milton worth $4 billion. The 38-year-old billionaire today owns a 2,000-acre ranch in Coolidge, Arizona, within which he has a picturesque mansion by the side of a river — Milton’s Paradise Regained, shall we say — proving once again that in today’s world, you don’t have to be old to make a fortune for yourself.

Hydrogen power


Nikola Motor has also just broken ground for a factory in Arizona. The company will make trucks powered by hydrogen. But, unlike other trucks that are getting into the business, Nikola’s trucks will split hydrogen on board from water, using solar power, and use the gas in a fuel cell engine to power the truck. This is great in theory, though cracking the engineering part of it is a challenge, but Nikola Motor seems quite confident. So also investors, who have put in a lot of money into the venture.

A rival to Elon Musk has emerged. Bloomberg quotes Trevor Milton as saying, “There’s very few people that can out-Elon Elon in this world and I’m one of them."

Imagine the consequences of this technology. This will completely transform the way cargo is transported for vehicles will be running on solar power and water. Of course, the cost of the engine will not be low, but presumably, when it is scaled-up this cost would be tamed too.

Booming pre-orders

Nikola Motor has named its products, at least for now, Nikola One, Nikola Two, Nikola Tre and Nikola Badger, which is a pick-up truck. For starters, the company will produce the last two. Delivery has been promised for 2022 but booking is open now. Reports say that the company has received pre-orders for 14,000 vehicles.


Battery technology is only for the interim — it won’t last more than 20 years. The future belongs to hydrogen. “There is now an established and rapidly growing market for heavy duty and intense duty cycle hydrogen vehicles. While it will take a long time for sizeable market penetration, hydrogen is a key part of the fuel mix to reduce emissions,” says Alastair Hayfield, Senior Research Director, Interact Analysis, a UK-based consultancy.

This is a lesson for India. This column has long argued that India should leapfrog battery-powered electric vehicles and jump right into hydrogen. Hydrogen or fuel cell vehicle research is still in its nascent stages in India. A big push by the government would galvanise all concerned, and hydrogen trucks could happen within a decade. Here is an opportunity for India to quickly come to the forefront. What is needed is a sort of a ‘National Mission on Hydrogen Vehicles’.

But more than that we need a crop of dashing start-ups headed by India’s own Musks and Miltons.

(All pictures are from the Nikola Motor website.)