Trevor Milton rumbles toward his audience of 2,000 in the ultimate green-energy vehicle—a red beer wagon drawn by eight Budweiser Clydesdales. “They represent how America was built,” he says of the massive horses. The audience, a mix of trucking execs, shippers, journalists and Anheuser-Busch InBev reps, roars its approval into the cavernous event center in Scotts dale, Arizona, that’s hosting the April launch party for Nikola Motor Co. Then comes Milton’s pitch. Just as diesel replaced the Clydesdales, a new fuel source is going to make petroleum obsolete: hydrogen.
The most abundant element in the universe is a zero-emission fuel. Convert it to electricity, and the only by-products are water and heat. Hydrogen, says the 37-year-old founder and chief executive of Nikola, can power heavy-duty trucks. It goes into a fuel cell and comes out as current to power electric motors.
Hydrogen power has been an enticing mirage for six decades. General Motors unveiled a hydrogen Electrovan prototype in 1966 but never made a business of it. Shares of Ballard Power, a pioneer in fuel cells, climbed to $140 in 2000 but now languish below $5. President George W. Bush poured taxpayer money into hydrogen-fueled-car research, but fewer than 7,500 hydrogenfuel-cell vehicles are on U.S. roads now.
From a Phoenix headquarters that will also build prototype semis, Milton has raised $265 million from such investors as the hedge fund ValueAct, the N