What was billed as “a partnership made in heaven” has taken a hellish series of turns for Nikola this month, and with the fate of its proposed alliance with General Motors now in limbo, the Phoenix-based startup is frantically trying to reassure investors on Wall Street where NKLA shares have been tanking.
The two companies announced a multi-billion deal Sept. 8 that would see them cooperate on the development and production of hydrogen and battery-electric trucks. Since then, however, Nikola and Trevor Milton, the company’s now-departed founder and chairman, have faced allegations of fraud and sexual assault, along with news of probes by the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Department of Justice.
That appears to be the primary reason why GM and Nikola will miss today’s target date for sealing their preliminary deal – though they have until Dec. 3 to work out any new wrinkles. But with investors showing increasing skepticism, Nikola issued a statement outlining its “strategy and vision,” a document that appears aimed at convincing Wall Street that it can move ahead even if the GM deal does fall through.
Describing itself as “a technology disruptor and integrator” aimed at becoming a “global leader,” it emphasized that it has a number of other ventures in the works, including a deal with European truck maker Iveco, while it is moving ahead on the launch of a factory in Arizona that will produce its heavy-duty hydrogen trucks.
Founded in Salt Lake City in 2014, Nikola Motors planned to produce large semi-trucks using fuel cells, rather than conventional diesel engines. The technology relies on hydrogen, instead of gasoline, and produces electric current to run a vehicle’s motors, with water vapor the only exhaust gas. Since moving to Phoenix, it’s added plans for a full-size pickup, the Badger set to be offered as either a pure battery-electric vehicle or a hybrid pairing a battery pack and a fuel-cell stack.
Until this month, Nikola planned to produce most of the essential technologies it would need for both the Badger and full-sized semis like the Nikola One in-house, or with other partners like Iveco. Together, they are developing a new, battery-electric truck dubbed the Nikola Tre and plan to begin testing the first batch of five prototypes being put together in Ulm, Germany “in the next few weeks.”
Separately, Nikola’s news release noted, it expects to begin testing “production-engineered prototypes” of its hydrogen-powered medium- and long-haul trucks for the U.S. market by the end of 2021. It has already lined up an order for as many as 800 of them from Anheuser Busch. They would roll out of a new plant near Phoenix already under construction. That facility is expected to be operational, the company said, by “mid-2023.”
Whether these and other plans Nikola outlined in today’s release will help regain the confidence of investors is far from certain. What seemed like a hot stock when it debuted in June has clearly lost plenty of luster.
Things seemed so different barely three weeks ago when Nikola and GM announced their $2 billion deal.
The Detroit automaker agreed to provide its hydrogen and battery technology to the start-up — and also to build the Badger for Nikola using the same platform developed for its own battery pickup, the GMC Hummer. That would create a new market for GM technology and increase the capacity utilization at what is believed to be the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. Nikola, meanwhile, estimated it would save billions through reduced investments. In turn, Nikola agreed to provide GM with an 11% equity stake.
But, just two days later, the short seller Hindenburg Research released a study claiming Nikola was based on “intricate fraud built on dozen of lies” perpetrated by the company’s founder and chairman. That quickly triggered the SEC probe and led to the decision by Milton to resign Sept. 21.
Further complicating matters, two women now have filed sexual assault charges in Utah against Milton, both claiming they were 15 at the time of the assaults. One, a cousin named Aubrey Ferrin Smith, said the assault occurred in 1999 when Milton was 17.
While GM has declined to comment about the delay in closing the deal with Nikola – noting only that talks continue – insiders have told TheDetroitBureau.com that “there is no panic,” and that they still see a significant “upside potential.” But it also appears the automaker is reevaluating the deal, notably the dollar figures involved. With Nikola stock now trading around $18 a share, or barely a third of what it closed at on Sept. 8, that means the 11% stake GM was scheduled to receive is worth substantially less than before. Finding a new equation is expected to be critical.
GM insiders TheDetroitBureau.com spoke to emphasized the fact that the Sept. 30 target for closing the deal was never hard and fast. The original agreement actually has a cutoff of Dec. 3. After that, it “may be terminated by either (Nikola) or GM Holdings if the closing has not occurred,” according a Nikola filing with the SEC.
While investors may take another look at the other deals Nikola has put together, the fate of the GM package will loom heavily over the company’s head during the coming weeks.