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Interview: Trevor Milton - Founder/Executive Chairman of Nikola Corporation

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VectoIQ  (VTIQ) - Get VectoIQ Acquisition Corp. Report and Nikola Motor shareholders voted Tuesday to approve a merger which will result in Nikola Corporation's listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange on Thursday, June 4th, under the ticker NKLA. At market close on Tuesday, Nikola's implied valuation exceeded $10 billion.

Trevor Milton, Nikola's founder and current CEO, joined Tesla Daily to discuss Nikola's strategy, hydrogen and battery technology, Nikola's lawsuit against Tesla, and more. The full video interview is provided alongside this article, but here are some highlights, slightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling about the successful merger vote?

"Big day, obviously. I had no idea how much work went into becoming listed on the Nasdaq or being publicly traded. It was more work than I've ever imagined in my life on anything, and it also makes it a lot more fun and a lot more enjoyable. Being publicly traded, people get to see the good and the bad about your company. I actually kind of think that's good, because up to this point it's all been kind of speculation across the board from either people that like us or don't like us. And now, there's a lot of facts out there, and that's probably the best part about it -- finally we get to talk about stuff that's actually filed with the SEC. So it's good stuff; it's fun."

Are you surprised at the $10B+ valuation?

"The pivotal moment for Nikola, when everything started changing completely was when we did the big joint venture with IVECO. That was like the moment. We did a huge joint venture with IVECO in Europe, and we were able to use a multi-billion dollar truck program that they had developed over four years to reconfigure with our truck. We already had our own designs, and we essentially laid them over and they helped us commercialize the entire truck and we did a 50-50 joint venture in Europe. We now have trucks coming off the assembly line next year in production, and we have them coming off the assembly line right now in testing. They're all hand-built on these assembly lines -- probably the first 50 or 100 trucks, they're all kind of very manually built and then it becomes a lot more automated. 

But, the moment that we announced that -- and now that people know we have trucks coming out in full production, that we do have all of our own powertrain, batteries, battery management systems, controls, everything is really done in house by Nikola -- when they realized that combination with IVECO, that was kind of the moment when everything changed. They said 'oh my gosh, IVECO validated these guys, they've been in there to look at them, they knew it was real, they've got a full production truck and they're going to be first in the world with a full production class 8 zero-emission truck over 300 miles.' That was a huge deal. I think that was the pivotal moment when I was like 'oh my gosh', it's getting easier now. Up to that point, it was pretty tough getting to that point, and it became a lot easier after that."

..."One thing we've learned is what [Tesla] actually had a lot of trouble with. And this is not against [Elon Musk], anyone else would have failed. Trying to build your own factory from the ground up is an absolute nightmare. Unless you have billions, and billions, and billions of dollars to do it, and you're first in market like Tesla was, you're going to fail. Whenever someone talks to me and they want advice on starting a company, [I tell them] don't build your own factory, you're going to go bankrupt, you don't know what you're doing. Don't do it, it's a total mistake. Now, Tesla's been able to pull it off. But, they've had a lot of problems with it; it's been very difficult and anyone else would have failed. I didn't want to go down that same path. I was like, 'look, if they had that much difficulty getting up and running, I'm going to fall flat on my face because I don't have the resources they have at the time.'

So we decided, 'I'm going to do a different business model, I'm going to partner with everybody. I'm not going to do anything myself, I'm going to partner with everyone.' So now, we've started partnering with the biggest people in the world to help us, and that's why you've seen the stock go to where it is, because in Europe we have our full joint venture, our full production coming out next year, testing vehicles coming off the line right now. That's three years ahead of the schedule we thought we could have done. And next year [we'll have limited trucking coming out of] our factory in Phoenix. We're breaking ground here shortly at our facility here in Phoenix, but that's all being built and designed by IVECO. So rather than us, where we don't have any factory experience, we're getting the best of the best to come in and do it for us."

How has your thinking around hydrogen vs. batteries changed over time?

"What I have learned in life, and the same thing in the trucking world, every application is so different that you come to realize that hydrogen does not make sense in some of those areas and you also learn that battery does not make sense in some of those areas. We already built a battery-electric platform because that's what a fuel-cell runs on, and so I was like '[why don't we pursue] this 40% of the market that we were just leaving out, and why would we do that when we have the ability to do that and do it first because we already had it developed?' So, we just decided we wanted to be first in the world. It's important to do that because a lot of people didn't have faith in Nikola at the time. A lot of people on both sides were saying, 'oh, Nikola is vaporware, they're totally fake...' Well, being first to market with a full semi truck zero-emission, that is an accomplishment that very few people in this world will ever experience. We wanted to be that person, and we are. That'll be out next year, as I said, in full production and they're coming down the assembly line right now."

"It was kind of a natural evolution of understanding that one size does not fit all. Hydrogen is really good for anything over 300 miles, battery does everything really good under 300 miles, and they honestly don't really compete with each other, which most people don't know. They think it's either battery or hydrogen and then we're just going to hate each other. Look, our enemy is not each other, it's the diesel, it's the internal combustion engine (ICE), get rid of all that crap. There's no reason why people should not be zero-emission anymore. It's complete bull----, because the tech is there, it's fully functioning. Tesla's already proven it on the car level when they got mocked by every OEM in the world, they proved it could outlast every ICE vehicle in the world, and we're now doing it with trucks. It's game over, the damn emissions need to end, and I think that was just a natural evolution. There could be five of us, and we still couldn't fulfill all the orders that are going to come down the pipeline."

Why file a lawsuit against Tesla?

"This is one that's really hard for me because it was actually misreported by a lot of people right up front that were mad at us for it. They didn't even care about the facts."

"I'll level with all the Tesla fans. What they don't know is prior to Tesla launching [the Tesla Semi], we knew about this truck. We knew a lot of details. A ton. They actually reached out and tried to hire our chief engineer. They don't know that Tesla was actually making offers to our chief engineer to try to recruit him away to come compete with us. So, we didn't throw the first stone. I never went to their chief guys and tried to hire them away, ever. And that's ok, everyone can work for who the want, that's not a big deal. The part that got real hard was we knew what they were doing, and we went to them. We said, 'Guys, look. We really want to work with you. We don't want to hurt you, we don't want you guys to hurt yourself. We don't want you to come out with something that's using these patents and here's why we use them.' It has nothing to do with, well, it has a little bit to do with design. Everyone wants their own design, everyone wants someone to recognize their vehicle, but that's like five percent of what the lawsuit is even about. This is where the media was reporting, 'Oh, it's all about the design, it looks like the same thing, and screw you Nikola, how dare you sue these guys.' So, it was a little hard, because it had like five percent to do with design and 95 percent not do to with design at all."

Milton continues to describe those areas in the video interview.