- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
“Nikola has engineered the holy grail of the trucking industry,” said company founder and then-CEO Trevor Milton in August 2016.
Milton was hailing the fact—or, check that—hailing the claim that his company had just “achieved 100 percent zero emissions on the Nikola One.” The Nikola One was the company’s (NKLA) prototype electric, heavy-duty semi truck. A photorealistic, computer rendering of the futuristic vehicle—with its super-aerodynamic silhouette—had created a sensation as soon as it was posted on the company’s website that May, prompting pre-orders of 7,000 trucks.
The “holy grail” announcement was intentionally enigmatic—a tease to build suspense. It was enigmatic because the Nikola One had never been described before as zero-emission. Though it was supposed to have an electric drivetrain—six electric motors, one at each wheel—its battery was to be charged by a generator that was run by a turbine that itself ran on compressed natural gas. Though CNG is a lot cleaner than diesel, it’s not zero emission.
In retrospect, a more fundamental enigma lay beneath the announcement. That was: How could the Nikola One have “achieved” anything, given that—as only a small group of engineers knew at the time—it didn’t yet exist? Its chassis was at Nikola’s headquarters in Salt Lake City; the body was still being fabricated in San Diego; the turbine was still in New Hampshire; and the electric motors had yet to be fabricated by contractors in Portland, Oregon.
Thirty days later the answer to the teased question arrived. In a remarkable pivot, CNG was suddenly out at Nikola and hydrogen was suddenly in. The Nikola One’s generator would now be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen would be produced by zero-emission solar farms built by Nikola. Instead of building a network of over 50 CNG fueling stations for customers to fill up at, as previously planned, it would have a network of over 50 hydrogen fueling stations.
The switch was dizzying. But what would it mean for the customers who had already ordered those 7,000 CNG-version trucks?
For the most part, Nikola’s specs on the hydrogen trucks were exactly the same as for the CNG trucks—unusually so. But in a few instances, the specs had changed, and some observers registered complaints on Nikola’s Facebook account. One man said he was disappointed that the hydrogen truck had only 1,000 horsepower, while the CNG truck had had 2,000.
The “Nikola Motor Company” account answered: “Specs went down just because the torque and HP were ruining tires, so we had to bring the HP and torque down a little to be manageable. We had to do it with our CNG version too after extensive testing.” (In an interview with a trade publication that September, Milton repeated the “destroying tires” explanation for the horsepower reduction.)
What tires? What CNG version? How could there have been extensive testing on a truck that didn’t exist yet?
Another follower on Facebook wanted to know how Nikola One performed in the cold. “Has it been tested in 30-degree temps?” he asked.
“Yes it has,” Nikola Motor assured him. “More info coming soon when we launch.”
On Twitter, someone asked—perhaps snidely—what happened to Nikola’s natural gas wells? (In one of Nikola’s wilder early assertions, it had claimed that it owned “several natural gas wells across the country,” and that this “vertical integration” was how it could guarantee customers low natural-gas prices.)
“We still have them,”@NikolaMotor responded. “Used as a backup to solar hydrogen production!” (Nikola has never publicly provided specifics on these wells. Asked about them, both Nikola and Milton declined comment for this article.)
As most of the business world now knows, Trevor Milton’s—um—salesmanship eventually caught up with him. But not before he led investors on a wild ride. That journey made him a billionaire and, for a brief moment this past June, brought Nikola’s market cap to close to $30 billion—more than Ford Motor Company’s (F).
His company has since lost more than 75 percent of its value, though. (Even after that precipitous plunge—with its stock below $17 as of market close on Monday—Milton’s still worth at least $1.5 billion.)
Two weeks ago, General Motors (GM) frostily backed out of a strategic partnership it had announced with Nikola in September, opting for an arms-length supply contract instead. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, has faced sharp questioning about her team’s due diligence. So has Stephen Girsky, Nikola’s executive chairman, who is a former GM executive and vice chairman. Girsky introduced the two companies earlier this year, sometime before Girsky’s special purpose acquisition company took Nikola public in June. (Both have insisted they did their homework.)
In this article we narrate the arc of Milton’s career, looking for clues about the viability of his crowning achievement: Nikola. Long story short: Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware.
Interviews with 17 former colleagues, employees, investors, and contractors have unearthed new details into the sharp business practices that have left so many disgruntled investors, employees, contractors, and former business partners in Milton’s wake. They include fresh allegations of whopping lies, baroque deceptions, and wily machinations to take advantage of other people’s intellectual property. They also hint at raw, loose ends that could possibly cause still more headaches for Milton. Some of the simmering resentments stem from the fact that Milton first started looking into the feasibility of an electric truck at least as early as 2011—earlier than previously reported—and while he was running previous ventures supported by investors whom he left high and dry. When Milton went on to become a billionaire, he left bitterness in his wake.
‘An intricate fraud built on dozens of lies’
Almost all of Nikola’s decline can be attributed to a devastating short-seller’s report published on Sept. 10 by Nate Anderson’s Hindenburg Research. The 15,000-word broadside, entitled “How to parlay an ocean of lies into a partnership with the largest auto OEM in America,” alleged that Nikola was “an intricate fraud built on dozens of lies over the course of … Milton’s career.”
Among many other things, it revealed that the Nikola One truck that the company had touted in a promotional video in January 2018—shown barreling down a Utah highway against a pulsing orchestral soundtrack—had actually just been rolling down a long, low-grade hill under the power of gravity. (Well, at least the “zero emissions” part was true.)
Behold, the Nikola One in motion. Pre-production units to hit fleets in 2019 for testing. The Nikola Hydrogen Electric trucks will take on any semi-truck and outperform them in every category; weight, acceleration, stopping, safety and features - all with 500-1,000 mile range! pic.twitter.com/K53FdYaZ34
— Nikola Motor Company (@nikolamotor) January 25, 2018
Nikola fired back four days later, slamming Hindenburg’s report as “false,” “defamatory,” and market manipulation. But its response left most accusations unaddressed, and confirmed some of the most troubling. In defending the misleading video, for instance, the company comically protested that “Nikola never stated its truck was driving under its own propulsion.”
Milton stepped down on Sept. 20. “The focus should be on the company and its world-changing mission, not me,” he tweeted the time. “I intend to defend myself against false accusations leveled against me by outside detractors.”
That was the day before the first of two women came forward to accuse Milton of sexual predations when each woman was just 15. Though decades old, the accusations were disturbing. One woman alleged that Milton, then 22, had digitally penetrated her when she was acting as an office assistant at his first business, and she was dependent upon him for a ride home. The other woman, a cousin of Milton, alleges that Milton, then 17, fondled her on the day of her grandfather’s funeral. (Milton has “strongly denied” both allegations.)
Nikola’s shots at Hindenburg appear to have been blanks. By the end of September, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had subpoenaed eight Nikola officers and employees and all its directors. More ominously, Manhattan federal and state prosecutors hit both Milton and the company with grand jury subpoenas. A raft of civil shareholder suits have already been filed. (Neither Milton nor Nikola provided any on-the-record comment for this story, despite being provided 112 written questions.)
Many shareholders and some analysts still believe in Nikola. Milton certainly acts like he does. Though he could have dumped 91.6 million shares on Dec. 1 when a lockup expired—representing about 25 percent of the company’s stock—he retained 98 percent of them. In a statement issued then, his spokesperson said that Milton “continues to believe in Nikola and its transformational technology,” “remains confident in the Company’s long-term success,” and “is committed to maintaining his position as Nikola’s largest shareholder.”
The company unquestionably offers a bold vision to meet a pressing environmental need. Its current plans call for marketing zero-emission semi trucks powered by batteries and, eventually, by hydrogen fuel cells. It also plans to build a network of up to 700 hydrogen fueling stations along key U.S. trucking routes. A bundled lease price would include all fuel and maintenance. (It has not yet sold any vehicles.)
The company has attracted skilled engineering partners, while some blue-ribbon customers, like Anheuser-Busch (BUD), have placed orders (though they’re revocable). As ever more governments impose deadlines for conversion to zero-emissions vehicles, the argument goes, the demand for heavy-duty electric semi trucks is inexorable.
Still, it’s hard to divorce this company from its founder. When it went public in June, it warned investors that it was “highly dependent on the services” of Milton, who was “the source of many, if not most, of the ideas and execution driving Nikola. If Mr. Milton were to discontinue his service to us . . . we would be significantly disadvantaged.”
Some have likened Milton to Tesla’s (TSLA) Elon Musk. It’s a comparison Milton has cultivated, by cheekily naming his electrical vehicle startup after the very same nineteenth-century, electrical-motor pioneer that Musk did: Nikola Tesla.
But the comparison is unsustainable. True, some describe Milton as “charismatic,” “passionate,” extremely “giving” towards friends, a “next-level salesman,” “a wild west cowboy,” and “a powderkeg.” And some still praise him.
“He was ahead of his time,” says Gene Langmesser, a concept-car builder who worked on two of Nikola’s prototypes. “He might have done some smoke and mirrors,” he continues, “but that’s what it takes in this industry to make something happen.”
But many sources focus on dishonesty. “He is not a truthful person,” says one.
“Sleazy,” says another.
“If you call him on a lie,” says a third, “he’ll vehemently lie in the face of proof of actual lying.”
Importantly, Milton was not merely a “serial entrepreneur,” as he has accurately described himself, but a concomitant one, too. That is, he often ran more than one business at a time. Employees, intellectual property, and funds sloshed untidily from venture to venture, multiple sources allege.
Milton’s first explorations into an electric truck appear to date back to at least 2011, when he was still running a company called dHybrid. That year, dHybrid even drafted a private placement memo that would have sought money to develop a “full hybrid vehicle”—a term that typically means one with an electric drivetrain—although the funding appears to have been scrapped.
Due to unsavory maneuvers, described below, he and his father eventually made millions off the sale of dHybrid, while most investors took little or nothing.
Perhaps trying to head off legal claims, Milton tried to buy out some of his old dHybrid investors as recently as mid-2019, about six months before he started talking to Steve Girsky’s group about going public. In a previously unreported letter, viewed by Yahoo Finance, Milton’s lawyer extended what he called a “highly unusual” offer to shareholders of Lexon Inc., a Milton umbrella entity through which many people bought their dHybrid stakes. He offered to return about half what they’d invested in exchange for a general release from liability.
Though Lexon had “ceased business operations” and nothing remained of dHybrid except some unpromising litigation, the lawyer suggested that Milton was making the offer as “an offer of gratitude for your belief in, and support of, Mr. Milton.”
Well, could be. Or, possibly, someone feared there might be some skeletons back there he didn’t want unearthed.
From an ADT alarm franchise to an online classified ad site
Trevor Robert Milton, 38, was born in April 1982 in southwestern Utah. His father, Bill, was a manager for the Union Pacific railroad and his mother, Sally, was a Realtor.
According to media interviews and his own social media posts over the years, his family moved to Las Vegas when he was a toddler. When he was six, he has often said, a Union Pacific engineer explained to him how diesel-electric locomotives worked. The engineer then pointed to a diesel semi truck and said that one day someone would be smart enough to build a locomotive semi truck.
“That was my light bulb,” Milton told a trucking publication in May 2019. “I decided right then that someday I’d build that locomotive semi.”
Assuming this conversation really occurred, the engineer was probably not focused on improving the environment, because diesel is dirty. Rather, he was probably stressing that electric motors offer certain advantages when hauling heavy loads. In a diesel-electric locomotive—a type of “series hybrid” engine—diesel fuel runs a generator, which charges a battery, which powers electric motors, which, finally, turn the wheels. Unlike diesel engines, electric motors provide instant torque (rotational power) from a standstill; have “wider torque bands” (meaning that they need fewer gear changes to pull heavy cargo); don’t stall as easily; and don’t need to idle.
When Milton was about eight, he returned to Kanab, Utah, a largely Mormon community nestled amid spectacular cowboy-movie scenery. (“Stagecoach,” among dozens of others, was filmed nearby.)
Milton’s mother was very sick. In 1997, when he was 15, she died of cancer. His father was often away, consulting for the railroad in Las Vegas, so he and his siblings learned to fend for themselves, he has said.
After high school, Milton went on a Mormon mission to Brazil, where he became fluent in Portuguese, he has said. Due to ill-health, he stopped after 18 months. He also spent a short period in Puerto Rico, where he learned to surf.
When he returned to Utah, he enrolled in Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) in Provo, but dropped out after a semester.
In about 2004 Milton launched his first business, an ADT alarm franchise in St. George, about 80 miles west of Kanab.
Two years later he sold the business to Glen Pilz. Pilz paid a $300,000 down payment, with a full purchase price of $850,000 contemplated over time, according to CNN Business. Pilz eventually discovered, though, as he told CNN, that “the books were not what they said they were,” and the purchase was a “disaster.” He later invoked a contractual provision to force Milton to take the business back, accepting a total loss of his down payment. (This past September, the Hindenburg report suggested that Milton had made wildly inflated claims about this alarm business over the years. In 2018, for instance, he told the Phoenix Business Journal he sold it for $1.5 million, and, in a YouTube interview this past May, “for almost $2 million.” Nikola’s response to the Hindenburg report was silent on those allegations, even though Milton was still its executive chairman at the time.)
While Milton was still running his alarm business, he started selling cars on the side. He sold them over online sites, like eBay, he later told a local newspaper.
Finding those sites to be a hassle, he decided to build an online classified ad site of his own. But his site would have some special features for vehicle sales. When a car was listed, the site’s software would automatically post the vehicle’s National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA) valuation.
In 2006 he set up a corporation for the new business—the aforementioned Lexon Industries. In 2007 he selected an odd name for the site: Upillar.com. According to a former Upillar employee, Milton once explained it this way: The site gives you (U) the strength of a pillar to build upon.
Upillar launched in 2009. One of Milton’s first promotional gambits was to sponsor conservative radio host Glenn Beck. For about two years, Beck plugged Upillar on his radio show and in Fox News television spots.
Though Upillar never gained much traction, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Milton took out billboard ads. He produced online video ads. His Twitter feed would crown an “ad of the day,” for anything from Siberian Husky pups to a 9mm Ruger. Later he started identifying a “Ubassador of the month”—an honor bestowed on the individual who had done most to promote the site. He hosted a “silly string” party for college kids, giving away 8,000 cans of the stuff. He sponsored NASCAR’s Jason Keller at Darlington. He started a Upillar dating service.
Despite all this, by April 2011—about two years after launch—the site was drawing only 200,000 monthly visits, compared to 60 million for Craigslist, according to a marketing trade publication. By the end of 2011, the site was petering out.
(This past September, the Hindenburg report drew attention to some exceedingly improbable claims that Milton made about Upillar over the years. This past May, for instance, Milton told Forbes that Upillar had grown from zero to “over 80 million online visitors per month” with “lightning speed.” He repeated the “80 million” figure in a YouTube interview that month, adding that “we had the first ever shopping cart in history”; that “we were beating Amazon at what they were doing”; and that “we would have ended up being Amazon but . . . we just grew too fast.” Hindenburg observed that online shopping carts had been in use since 1994, when Milton was 12, and that it was doubtful Upillar was ever “beating Amazon,” which reported $4.6 billion in general e-commerce sales in 2009, the year Upillar launched.)
‘It was my life savings at the time’
In late 2009, while Milton was still frantically trying to get Upillar off the ground, he launched a second startup. According to CNN Business and the Wall Street Journal, Milton had run across a Utah man who was marketing a technology he’d invented for converting diesel engines to run on a mix of diesel and compressed natural gas, which was much cheaper. It is apparent from public records that this inventor was Mike Shrout. Milton asked Shrout to convert his own Dodge pickup to the dual-fuel system, according to a source familiar with this history.
That November Milton proposed they start a business. Milton wanted to install the system on heavy-duty semi trucks. He allegedly offered Shrout a 50-50 partnership, the source claims. Shrout agreed, showed Milton drawings of his system, and Milton hired Shrout as an employee of the new company.
Without Shrout’s knowledge, the source continues, Milton filed a provisional patent application a day or two later, listing only Milton as the inventor, as CNN Business first reported. (Yahoo Finance has viewed the application.)
Milton did later add Shrout’s name to the final patent application records show, but Shrout never became a 50-50 partner in the business, according to the source.
From there, Milton moved fast. According to an account dHybrid’s lawyers would later lay out in a lawsuit, Milton approached Jerry Moyes, the CEO of Swift Transportation, a major trucking company. Milton drove to Phoenix in his pickup and showed off the dual-fuel system.
Moyes and Milton hit it off, according to legal filing, with Milton “remind[ing] Moyes of himself when he was younger.” Moyes allegedly offered Milton the use of his Park City vacation home and to fly him around on his personal jet.
In March 2010, Swift provided dHybrid with a Volvo semi truck cab to convert as a proof of concept.
Meanwhile, that same month, Milton and his agents were soliciting investments in dHybrid from unsophisticated individuals.
“It was my life savings at the time,” says a Utah man who invested $40,000 in March 2010.
Many investors were told that, to do so, they had to invest in Lexon Industries, which would also give them a stake in Upillar. One remembers being told that Milton had sold his first business, an alarm company, for more than $1 million, and that Upillar would soon be competing with the likes of Craigslist. Milton assured him that his money would double within two years, he says.
Other people held stock directly in dHybrid, however. One dHybrid consultant, for instance, says he was partially compensated in dHybrid stock for about a year.
The converted Volvo semi truck performed well in tests, demonstrating about a 30 percent savings in fuel costs. Swift Transportation then went forward. In May 2010 it signed a $16 million development contract with dHybrid, handing over a $2 million advance. dHybrid was to convert 800 trucks—$20,000 per conversion. The advance would cover the first 100 conversions.
Things went south from there, however. Swift Transportation gave dHybrid five more cabs to convert and test further. But dHybrid never got these trucks to perform as well as the first, Swift later asserted in court filings. (These cabs, according to former dHybrid employees, were equipped with newer engines, and were therefore subject to stricter environmental regulations. dHybrid’s engineers could not get them to work as well within the deadlines and price points Milton had promised.)
Over the next two years, Swift Transportation’s Moyes came to believe that dHybrid had improperly “applied portions of the $2 million advance” for “purposes unrelated” to the contract, as his company later alleged in court, suggesting that funds were being commingled.
At the time, Milton was heavily promoting his other company, Upillar.com. At one point, according to a former Upillar employee, Milton told workers that Upillar’s burn rate was $100,000 per month.
As its relationship with Swift deteriorated, Milton looked for money elsewhere, courting a series of investor groups. In communications with them, Milton referred to the $16 million Swift contract as a “$250-million dollar plus contract” or even a “$300 million contract,” as Hindenburg Research later noted. In its response to Hindenburg, Nikola said that Milton had been referring to the fact that the development deal contained an option for Swift, if happy with the first 800 conversions, to order an additional 11,700 of them. That would, indeed, have brought the entire value of the contract to $250 million. But, of course, only five conversions were ever performed—not 12,500.
As the months passed, some Lexon investors noticed that they’d never received stock certificates documenting their purchases. Two say they repeatedly asked about them—for years—but were given runarounds.
“I’ll shoot it off Monday,” Milton wrote one investor in an electronic message shown to Yahoo Finance, referring to the investor’s stock certificate. “I threw in some extra shares for being so late and taking so long [smile emoji].”
The certificate never arrived.
Despite the worsening financial squeeze, dHybrid was branching out. In 2011 and 2012, Shrout’s team developed a fuel system for a dedicated CNG engine—i.e., an engine that ran solely on compressed natural gas—according to a former dHybrid employee. It was shown off at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in May 2012.
Also, in either 2010 or 2011, three brothers—Garrett, Casey, and Morgan Mackelprang—began working in a locked room on the second floor of the dHybrid manufacturing facility, according to two then-employees. (Morgan—a longtime, close friend of Milton’s—is now Nikola’s product development manager. None of the brothers returned messages.)
The brothers’ project was hush-hush, according to two former dHybrid employees. One says he saw pallets of batteries and some old Ford electric motors. (Ford marketed a battery-powered electric pickup truck, the Ford Ranger EV, from 1998 to 2002.)
Milton eventually admitted that the secret project was looking into the feasibility of a hybrid electric truck, according to two employees. One says he later discussed with Milton the gear and axle ratios that might be appropriate for one.
In mid-2011, dHybrid considered raising money to pursue the electric truck idea. A draft private placement memorandum shown to Yahoo Finance, dated August 2011, sought money, inter alia, “to fund the development of a full hybrid vehicle”—language that would typically refer to a vehicle, like a Prius, that has an electric drivetrain in addition to another power source.
By May 2012, however, Milton appears to have decided to compartmentalize the electric vehicle project outside dHybrid. That month he set up a Nevada corporation called Bluegentech—later renamed Nikola Motor Company.
In June, the bromance between Milton and Swift Transportation’s Moyes was officially over. dHybrid had depleted the $2 million advance—as well as a $322,000 loan from Swift—and had still only completed five test conversions. Furious, Moyes threatened to press criminal charges against Milton, according to a later court filing by dHybrid’s lawyers. In July, Swift Transportation sued dHybrid for breach of contract and loan default.
Swift Transportation’s suit was dHybrid’s second in the space of a week. The first had been filed by a Salt Lake City investment partnership known as sPower, for Sustainable Power Group. In May 2012, sPower had contracted to buy dHybrid for $3 million. But just a month after signing the term sheet, it abruptly pulled out. It accused Milton’s company of having “fabricated” test results on the five Swift test trucks and, contrary to representations, not having even “begun the EPA certification process in earnest”—a crucial prerequisite to ever fulfilling the Swift contract.
DHybrid’s lawyers lashed back aggressively. In the Swift action, dHybrid denied wrongdoing and counterclaimed, accusing Swift Transportation’s Moyes of perpetrating a “bait and switch.” Moyes had enticed Milton, “a young, unsuspecting entrepreneur,” into sharing “his innovative technology” by dangling “a huge, $250 million contract,” dHybrid’s lawyers alleged. They accused Swift Transportation of misappropriating trade secrets, interfering with the dHybrid’s third-party contracts, and impeding the EPA approvals. (Swift denied the counterclaims in court. Now part of Knight-Swift Transportation, the company did not respond to inquiries.)
In sPower’s instance, dHybrid also counterpunched. In a letter responding to sPower’s notice of termination, dHybrid’s lawyer denied wrongdoing and accused sPower of misusing confidential information and violating other contract provisions.
(Later that year, for unknown reasons, sPower withdrew its suit. In 2015, dHybrid sued sPower, though. That litigation continues today, but under seal. sPower did not respond to inquiries.)
Mike Shrout, whose dual-fuel invention had formed the original basis of dHybrid, was pushed out in 2012, according to former employees. In subsequent years, dHybrid applied for several additional patents. Two of those appear to relate to the dedicated CNG fuel system Shrout’s team invented, according to a former dHybrid engineer. Milton is listed as the first inventor on those, and Shrout is not mentioned.
In October 2014, Milton sold dHybrid to Worthington Industries (WOR), a public company and steel business based in Columbus, Ohio. Worthington, which makes pressure cylinders in which CNG gas can be stored, had been a supplier to dHybrid. Worthington paid nearly $16 million—including $12 million cash—for a nearly 80 percent stake.
Naturally, some investors were thrilled at the news. One Lexon investor called Milton, the man recounts in an interview.
“Congratulations!” he said. “This is sweet! How much are our shares worth? How do we get paid back?”
“Your investment was in Lexon,” Milton explained to him, he recalls. “That has nothing to do with the sale.”
Odder still, those who held dHybrid shares directly fared no better than Lexon stockholders. They, too, got zero.
What had happened was this. In October 2012—after dHybrid had been named in the two lawsuits—Milton’s father, Bill, incorporated a second dHybrid, called dHybrid Systems, LLC. The original company, set up in 2009, was dHybrid Inc.
The two dHybrids worked out of the same premises and used nearly identical trade dress. dHybrid Systems was said to be devoted to dedicated CNG fuel-systems, while dHybrid Inc. focused on dual-fuel systems.
Worthington had purchased only dHybrid Systems. That dHybrid was owned solely by Bill and Trevor Milton, who were, therefore, the sole recipients of the cash generated by the sale.
Even dHybrid employees were surprised.
“It was always just ‘dHybrid,’” says one of them. “When they sold dHybrid Systems is when we found out there were two dHybrids.”
In subsequent media and YouTube interviews, Milton has described dHybrid Inc. as having “merged” or “morphed” into dHybrid Systems. To this day, Trevor Milton’s LinkedIn page references only one dHybrid, which it says he led from 2010 until its October 2014 sale.
In July 2015, Swift Transportation and dHybrid agreed to dismiss their litigation—apparently due to settlement. According to a letter Milton wrote to some Lexon shareholders five days later, dHybrid actually received $1.7 million from the resolution.
In the letter, Milton told shareholders that Lexon’s portion of the recovery came to $510,000, and that Milton would sweeten the pot with $95,000 from his own pocket. If they agreed to sign a release, investors could receive back—less than seven cents on the dollar. (Two direct dHybrid shareholders and one Lexon shareholder tell Yahoo Finance they were never notified of even this modest payout.)
A few months after the Worthington sale closed, Milton celebrated by taking 30 of his friends to Hawaii for his birthday—all expenses paid by Milton—a friend later recounted in an online interview with him.
Then Milton launched full bore into Bluegentech—his hybrid electric truck venture. In early 2015 he reached out to a tiny specialty shop near Portland, Oregon, called EVDrive.
A year earlier, EVDrive’s founder, Bob Simpson, had wowed trade pubs and specialty blogs with his handiwork. He’d converted a 2012 Kawasaki off-road vehicle into a zero-emission super-buggy powered by four electric motors—one at each wheel. The UTV (utility terrain vehicle) had the remarkable ability to make zero-radius turns—also known as tank-turns or Batmobile turns.
These engineering feats—in a realm called “torque-vectoring”—involved savvy that could be valuable in designing a semi truck with great load-pulling power and resistance to jack-knifing.
At first the EVDrive people thought Milton was pursuing the project for Worthington, says Steve Tice, who was then Simpson’s partner in charge of the business end of things. Milton’s emails at the time identified himself as both president of Bluegentech and a Worthington official “in charge of R&D Projects.”
EVDrive’s understanding was that it was competing for the contract against two other bidders, Tice recalls. One of the others was said to be Rimac Automobili, a Croatian concept-car outfit. (Rimac declined comment.)
The assignment was to build the drivetrain for a hybrid electric semi truck cab that would have six electric motors, one at each wheel. The battery would be charged by a generator powered by a turbine run by compressed natural gas. Basically, the engine would be something like that of a diesel-electric locomotive, except that CNG would run the generator instead of diesel fuel. (The turbine would also provide a second power source for the wheels.)
EVDrive put together a proposal involving a couple other specialty shops in the area. As one of the Portland people understood it, the project was going to be a win-win for Worthington, because Worthington hoped to use its newly acquired dHybrid Systems unit to sell CNG fuel systems to fleets of Bluegentech trucks.
In March, Milton visited EVDrive in Portland. While he was there, Simpson gave him a ride in his torque-vectoring UTV, but got too aggressive. He tried a zero-radius turn on asphalt, and flipped the car over onto the passenger side, scratching Milton.
Milton was momentarily furious, Tice recalls, shouting, “‘Do you know who I am? I’m the CEO of Bluegentech!’”
In a flash, though, the anger was gone. “You know what?” Tice remembers him saying. “This is fantastic. We’re going to work together.” Milton talked about Worthington helping EVDrive bring the buggy to market and maybe even buying EVDrive out, a team member recalls. They then discussed freely with him how their buggy worked and their plans to improve it, one engineer says, because Milton was under a non-disclosure agreement.
That May, EVDrive signed a nearly $700,000 development contract to build the drivetrain for the prototype semi truck. (The turbine was being built by a different contractor, Brayton Engineering, of Hampton, New Hampshire.)
Milton presumably paid the $174,000 down payment with his own money, because it wasn’t until two months later, in July, that Bluegentech found its first seed investor. That investor group, consisting mostly of Worthington, put in $2 million. Worthington’s then chief operating officer, Mark Russell, urged his company to make the investment, according to Bloomberg. (Later, in 2019, Russell joined Nikola as president, and he has been the company’s CEO since it went public last June. Worthington declined comment.)
Milton quit working for Worthington in March 2015. Sometime that year, Milton traveled to Croatia to visit the Rimac concept-car outfit. While there, according to a Financial Times story just this past September, he met with its design director, Adriano Mudri. There Milton purchased, for several thousand dollars, some “Jetsons”-looking designs Mudri had made for a hypothetical hydrogen-powered, super-aerodynamic semi truck, according to the paper, as well as a virtual 3D model of it. Mudri called his truck Road Runner. His drawings had been entered in the Michelin Design Challenge back in 2010. (Mudri declined comment.)
Meanwhile, Milton had started using a new domain name on his emails: nikolamotor.com. In May 2015, someone typed that name into a browser. A beta site popped up displaying a futuristic semi truck. The person made a screengrab. The viewer didn’t know it at the time, but it was one of Mudri’s Road Runner renderings. Shortly thereafter the beta site was blocked from public view. (This past July, the screengrab surfaced on Twitter.)
I'm so old I remember when Nikola was going to name their truck "Roadrunner". Or maybe "Coyote", pending Trevor's ability to figure out which was the hero and which was the villain. pic.twitter.com/RrmNex1ue0
— Nikola Insider (@InsiderNikola) July 10, 2020
“I’d seen a picture of it,” says Markus Scholten, about the Road Runner. Scholten was a carbon-fiber modeling engineer working on the cab of Milton’s prototype. “When I joined [the project], my understanding was it was going to have the Road Runner name, and [Milton had bought] that design. Then [Nikola’s chief designer Steve] Jennes came on board, and he [and Milton] were tweaking it to make it more American.” (Milton hired Jennes, an experienced automotive designer, in April 2015. Two other engineers working on other aspects of the prototype also remember the project being referred to as “Road Runner” in-house.)
In December 2015, Nikola applied for six design patents on the final drawings, listing Milton and Jennes as inventors. It did not notify the patent office of the Mudri designs.
Even though Nikola paid Mudri for his designs, that alone may not have justified omitting all mention of Mudri’s drawings. Patent applicants have a “duty of candor” to the patent office to disclose to examiners “prior art” bearing on whether an invention is truly “novel” and “nonobvious.” Since Mudri’s designs had been publicly displayed in 2010, similar designs might no longer have been patentable in late 2015. (Failure to disclose pertinent prior art is called “inequitable conduct,” explains Tim Holbrook, an IP professor and vice provost at Emory Law School. It’s considered a fraud on the patent office, and can result in invalidation of a patent.)
In early 2016, one of the EVDrive people was contacted by a subcontractor about an apparent mistake they had made in an order. But EVDrive hadn’t placed the order. Milton had placed it—behind their back—while implying that it came from them, according to an EVDrive engineer. (Yahoo Finance has seen the correspondence.)
It was then that EVDrive realized that Milton was building a UTV—but without them. They confronted him, but he told them the contract let him do it, one team member says.
Though not happy, EVDrive did not protest further. They were a tiny outfit, one engineer explains, and they wanted to complete the truck project on which they had already invested tens of thousands of dollars worth of time.
What the EVDrive people wouldn’t realize until many years later—until just a few months ago, in fact—was that Milton also applied for UTV-related patents in May and October of 2016 that, they allege, include significant aspects of their inventions.
“These are photographs of our stuff almost,” says one engineer of a patent Milton eventually obtained on an electric UTV.
Another Nikola patent, for an “electric battery assembly,” also incorporates their ideas, a team member claims. “We’d been developing and selling vehicles with this battery IP since 2011,” he says.
The Nikola patents list Trevor Milton as the first inventor, and list no EVDrive engineers as contributors. (Neither NIkola nor Milton responded to questions seeking comment.)
‘The truck of the future’
On May 9, 2016, Nikola Motor Company burst into public view. There on its website, was the gorgeous Nikola One semi cab (Milton-Jennes version). The company, which no one had heard of before, had been “quietly” formed “years ago” to “transform [the] U.S. transportation industry,” its first release explained. Nikola would be displaying “working prototypes” later that year of a “2,000 horsepower” electric semi truck, the Nikola One, as well as of a 4x4 electric UTV.
A second release announced that it was taking reservations on the semi, and that the first 5,000 orders would receive “free CNG fuel for the first million miles.” That release flipped dizzyingly between past, present, and future tenses, making it hard to tell what already existed and what was aspirational.
Nikola “is finalizing assembly” of the truck, it said, which “is capable of . . . offering more than 1,200 miles between stops. ‘Nikola has built the truck of the future’ . . . said Trevor Milton. . . . The fuel will be delivered through Nikola’s own natural gas wells and fueling stations in every state when trucks enter service.” (Emphasis added.)
For weeks Nikola extolled the virtues of his CNG-electric hybrid truck. In June he told a trade pub that its technology was “ten to fifteen years ahead of any other [original equipment manufacturer] in fuel efficiencies, MPG, and emissions.”
Then everything spun on a dime.
“Biggest news in transportation history coming next week,” the official Nikola account teased in late July. Three days later came the thunderous, but puzzling “holy grail” announcement. Nikola’s team “has achieved 100 percent zero emissions on the Nikola One commercial class 8 truck,” it said. Finally, on Aug. 30, the pivot to hydrogen fuel cells was made explicit.
What had caused the company to suddenly spurn a technology that was 10-15 years ahead of everyone else’s?
Nikola’s current CEO, Russell, recently told the Wall Street Journal that it was he, Russell, who convinced Milton to make the switch. The company needed to raise more money, he said, and Russell—then Worthington’s COO and a personal investor—worried that falling diesel prices would “doom any cost advantage for natural gas,” the Journal reported. The investor appeal of “zero-emissions” was another lure.
Others, however, have wondered if some people at Worthington were growing disenchanted with Milton, and if that played a role. The dHybrid CNG fuel systems unit that Milton had sold them was not thriving. According to the Hindenburg report’s sources, the systems had been literally falling off customers’ trucks. During the course of 2015, Worthington wrote off $3.8 million due to various issues at dHybrid—almost a quarter of what they’d paid for it. Any notion of Worthington selling dHybrid fuel systems to Nikola fleets seems to have vanished. (Worthington, which later shuttered the unit entirely, declined comment.)
For the engineers madly trying to finish the Nikola One prototype before its public unveiling Dec. 1, the pivot to hydrogen was irrelevant. They continued assembling the CNG turbine version.
Which they were proud of. The turbine from Brayton was “awesome,” says one person who helped assemble the prototype in Salt Lake City. “It was going to be an amazing truck. The highest performance semi-truck on the planet. And it would’ve been finished in a month or two.”
Just not by the Dec. 1 deadline. By then, the gear boxes were empty; the generator wasn’t plugged into the battery; the cooling system wasn’t built; the motor cores and other parts hadn’t arrived. “There was no driving this truck,” says someone who was there.
Nevertheless, the cab was hoisted on stage, and a day or two before the show, stickers were placed on the bumpers and side panels marked “H2” and “H2: Zero Emissions Hydrogen Electric.”
The unveiling, at Nikola’s then-headquarters in Salt Lake City, was a highly produced event. About six hundred members of the media, industry partners, customers, and politicians were invited, including the Utah governor.
Against a pounding score—something like the Chicago Bulls theme song—Milton drove to the lip of the stage in the company’s prototype electric UTV. He hopped out and trotted up on stage. He was fast-talking, fluent with engineering jargon, and overflowing with infectious enthusiasm.
After providing some background, he turned to the main event: the unveiling. Hulking behind him the whole time had been the Nikola One, draped in a form-fitting, lamé tarp.
As Milton spoke, however, a couple engineers couldn’t believe their ears, they say in interviews. Milton told the crowd that, while he’d be inviting people into the cab later to see its dashboard computer monitor, they wouldn’t be allowed in the driver’s seat.
“We will have a chain on the seats . . . just for the safety,” he explained. “I don’t want someone to end up doing something and driving this truck off the stage. . . . This thing fully functions and works.”
That was jarring, but what came next was worse. He mentioned nothing at all about the custom CNG turbine in the truck. Instead, he described the purportedly remarkable properties of “the fuel cell we have in the truck.”
“There’s a hundred kilograms of hydrogen on board,” he said, which provide “2,330 usable kilowatt hours of hydrogen.” Assuming 0.58 miles per kilowatt hour—which “is what we’re seeing in our testing,” he said—you get a “1,351-mile range on that truck before you have to refuel.”
“We couldn’t hardly believe what he just said,” recalls one person present. “There wasn’t any hydrogen in the building. There wasn’t any hydrogen in the vicinity.” Until then, the engineer says, “we had no idea that he was that deep into lying.”
The stage lights then darkened as Milton played a short, sentimental video about truckers. Toward the end of it, the LED trim lights came on near the Nikola One’s headlamps—gleaming through the tarp—and the truck began to revolve on a platform.
At last, the tarp slipped from the truck, like a dropped négligée, and the crowd roared.
Beneath the rotating platform, a man had crawled into a narrow space. Though the Nikola One had a battery that could buffer light loads, it needed an AC powercord, strung through a hole in the stage and plugged into a wall, to keep the dashboard computer and other accessories on. The man below was unplugging and replugging the cord as the platform revolved, to keep it from getting tangled, according to someone present.
Choked up, Milton paused to compose himself. Then he invited the crowd to come up on stage to see and touch Nikola One for themselves.
“This truck will come to market,” Milton vowed. “This is a real truck. Not a pusher.”
(The next day, Nikola hosted at its headquarters six intimate break-out sessions concerning the Nikola One, in which Milton participated. During the fifth—a highly technical discussion of the powertrain—Nikola’s chief engineer Kevin Lynk mentioned in passing that the prototype had a “natural gas turbine” on it. See 1:26:51. The video was available on Nikola’s YouTube channel until recently.
Three and a half years later, this past June, Bloomberg’s Ed Ludlow reported both that the Nikola One had not been drivable at the unveiling and that it hadn’t carried a hydrogen fuel cell. Milton furiously protested that he had never suggested otherwise. On his Twitter account—since deleted—he vowed to sue, adding: “@EdLudlow should be let go. He will never set foot in my building. . . . No one in Bloomberg either. . . . Everyone at the event knew we didn’t drive it because it wasn’t safe. . . . There were ‘no gears and motors missing,’ you jackjob. They were sitting on tables to show the audience.” The event video shows no such tables.)
Nikola sues Tesla
Nikola One hasn’t come to market. Though some engineers assumed they’d be called back after the unveiling to make it driveable, that never happened.
Still, the showmanship seemed to have an impact. After the unveiling, the company has claimed, thousands of new orders poured in. In January 2016, the company raised $13.6 million from investors. By the end of 2017, it had collected $44 million more.
The Salt Lake City performance may have also stirred competition. In April 2017—four months after the unveiling—Tesla tweeted a teaser image of its own electric, heavy-duty semi truck. That November it formally unveiled two prototypes of the super-aerodynamic Tesla Semi at a publicity event. (Tesla’s would be all battery electric. Tesla’s Musk has derided hydrogen “fool cells,” opining that it’s more efficient to store energy in batteries than in hydrogen.)
Nikola promptly sued Tesla for $2 billion, alleging infringement of its design patents.
“Milton began designing the Nikola One in his basement in 2013,” his lawyers wrote in Nikola’s May 2018 complaint. Designer Steve Jennes and he later refined it, they continued. The complaint mentioned nothing about Adriano Mudri’s Road Runner.
(Eventually, Tesla’s lawyers learned of the Mudri renderings. This past September they asked the court to invalidate Nikola’s patents due to “inequitable conduct”—its failure to bring those drawings to the patent examiner’s attention. Nikola then admitted in a legal filing that Milton met Mudri in 2015 and knew about his Road Runner designs, but denied that they were similar to Nikola One’s final design or material to the patents. The litigation continues.)
Though the Nikola One has evidently never been made drivable, it did give one last performance.
In late 2017, perhaps goaded by skeptics, Milton tweeted that his followers “may or may not see the Nikola truck moving” soon. In January 2018, the company’s official Twitter account tweeted a video and also posted it on Facebook. “Behold the 1,000 HP, zero emission Nikola semi truck in motion,” said the Facebook post. The video shows the truck, over stirring music, cruising across the Utah desert at a high clip.
Thirty-three months later the video would earn a place in the annals of corporate hucksterism. Hindenburg’s researchers had been able to find the section of highway in question—a long, downhill stretch of the Mormon Trail south of Grantsville, Utah—as well as texts from an engineer suggesting that the truck had been towed to the top and then allowed to roll.
Online, the revelation gave rise to a game called the Nikola Challenge—a variant on the Soap Box Derby of Akron, Ohio. Contestants would drive their vehicles to a certain cattle guard at the crest of the three-percent grade Hindenburg had identified. There they’d turn off their engines, release their brakes, and see who could coast to the highest speed. The driver of a Tesla Model 3 may hold the current title, claiming to have reached 71 miles per hour.
“Nikola’s new cell technology”
For years, investor enthusiasm for Nikola snowballed. It raised $100 million in 2018; $250 million in 2019; and $700 million when it went public this past June.
Trevor Milton thrived, too. He got married in 2017; bought a $2.2 million house near Phoenix in 2018; and, last November, a $32.5 million ranch near Oakley, Utah, with a 16,800-square foot mansion and helipad. Recent securities filings suggest that, prior to Nikola’s going public this past June, he made a third, unidentified real estate purchase, for about $22.5 million. When the company did go public, Nikola permitted Milton to cash out $70 million in stock. (Just this month, he cashed out $56 million more to pay for the earlier property deals.)
During this period, Milton made still more claims whose truth Hindenburg would later cast doubt upon. But the most intriguing occurred in late 2019, about six months before Nikola announced that it would be going public.
“Big update coming about 2020,” he tweeted in late October. “Wow. Get ready! Nikola will change the world as we know it.”
“Tomorrow it all changes,” he tweeted again, in November. “Diesel trucks are obsolete for good.”
The next day the company announced a “game-changing battery cell technology.” In the release Milton said:
“This is the biggest advancement we have seen in the battery world. . . . We are talking about doubling the range of [battery-electric] and hydrogen-electric vehicles around the world.”
An alternative to conventional lithium-ion batteries, “Nikola’s new cell technology” could do all that “with little or no increase to battery size or weight.” It was also “environmentally friendly and easy to cycle.”
Whatever it was, Nikola abruptly stopped talking about it—but without retracting any of Milton’s claims either.
Hindenburg later surmised that Milton had been alluding to the company’s planned acquisition of a U.K. company called ZapGo. Nikola signed a letter of intent with ZapGo on Oct. 31, 2019, two days after Milton’s first “Wow” tweet.
But ZapGo apparently couldn’t deliver on its promises to Nikola. Nikola pulled out of the ZapGo deal in February, and sued it in March. ZapGo entered bankruptcy in July. (ZapGo representatives did not return inquiries.)
In its response to Hindenburg, Nikola denied that Milton’s statements had had anything to do with ZapGo. Milton had been talking about “an ongoing confidential R&D partnership with a leading academic institution,” the company asserted, and Nikola was “excited about potential breakthroughs related to its next generation battery technology.”
With federal and New York County prosecutors now scrutinizing the company, that had better be true.
Today, the company Milton built is an odd one. Though it’s been talking about hydrogen for four years, it appears to own only one granted, hydrogen-related patent. (Randolph Square IP, a professional appraiser of patent portfolios, analyzed Nikola this past June, according to managing director David Holmes. Nikola earned a “mediocre” score using the firm’s proprietary methodology, Holmes says. Tesla, by contrast, earned an “outstanding” score when the firm looked at its portfolio in April 2019.)
Nikola doesn’t talk much about the Nikola One anymore. It has built prototypes of a slightly smaller cab called the Nikola Two. It has distributed videos and given parking-lot demonstrations of the Nikola Two in motion, apparently powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The Nikola Two is not expected to reach any customers before the end of 2023.
The first Nikola truck expected to reach market is the Nikola Tre—Norwegian for “three.” By far the least sexy of the prototypes, the Tre will be, initially at least, a pure battery electric truck (no fuel cells), and will have a range of just 250 to 300 miles. It uses a more conventional cabover design (seat over axle), which is more practical for urban and European use. The plan is for these to be built first at an Iveco factory in Germany—maybe by the end of 2021. Later they will be imported in “kits” for assembly at a factory Nikola is building in Coolidge, Ariz.
The company’s network of hydrogen fueling stations still seems far out over the horizon—seemingly multiple capital raises away. In the past, the company has said that it did not expect it to be completed before 2028, and that date now looks optimistic.
It is highly speculative to discuss the potential civil or criminal sanctions Milton could face, if any. He is not now charged with anything and may never be. Securities fraud carries a maximum 25-year term per offense, but sentencing guidelines for the offense would usually be much lower, and they would hinge on an array of variables that are currently unknowable with respect to Milton.
For all we know, by late 2023 Milton could be back in the saddle at Nikola. While he relinquished his executive and board positions in September, he has retained his majority stake, and he can reclaim his voting rights and seek a board seat in three years.
Alternatively, by then he could be soliciting investors for his next exciting project.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Milton started paying himself a $350,000 salary in July 2015. In fact, he began paying himself a $350,000 salary in July 2016. Yahoo Finance regrets the error.
Roger Parloff is a regular contributor to Yahoo Finance and has also been published in Yahoo News, The New York Times, ProPublica, New York Magazine, and NewYorker.com, among others. He was formerly an editor-at-large at Fortune Magazine.
More from Roger: