Tech

Nikola burned billions on failed hydrogen truck. Investors are getting even.

Investors rejected a proposal to give executives millions of dollars in compensation.

Investors in hydrogen trucking startup Nikola rejected millions in planned compensations for executives.
Nikola

Investors in Nikola last week rejected a proposal that would have awarded millions of dollars in compensation to executives, including disgraced founder Trevor Milton.

Milton was set to receive compensation of $159.2 million, which was later reduced to $16.5 million when the scandal-plagued executive resigned in September of last year. But shareholders said Milton can’t have that either. Other executives including the current chief legal officer were also denied millions of dollars in pay.

Dubious company — When the company went public in June of last year, Nikola’s stock skyrocketed on the back of excitement around green technology and electric vehicles. Hopeful individuals saw Milton’s big ambitions to revolutionize trucking with zero-emissions vehicles and thought they were getting in on the ground floor of the next Tesla. A partnership with General Motors to make trucks in its factories sent the stock skyrocketing ever higher.

But things quickly unraveled as it came to light that Nikola exaggerated progress developing its technology. Milton was forced to resign following reports that he had lied, claiming the hydrogen-powered Nikola One truck was moving on its own propulsion when a prototype shown in a promotional video was in fact simply rolled down a hill. The company was quickly hit with an investigation by regulators into whether or not it knowingly defrauded investors and GM nixed its deal, sending the stock plunging.

Today, Nikola’s stock is worth about $14 per share, down from its high of $65 a year ago. Milton, despite this most recent vote, still walked away from Nikola as a multimillionaire.

Resounding rejection — At this point, it’s unclear why anybody would really want to be an investor in Nikola. Tesla has ambitions to make battery-electric semi-trucks, and GM is still trying to make hydrogen-powered variants through a new partnership with trucking firm Navistar. Both Tesla and GM are way more reputable than Nikola, too. Each has extensive experience actually making vehicles, and bring in billions of dollars in cash they can throw at the large trucking market.

Nikola, on the other hand, has never sold a vehicle, has maybe $900 million left of the $3 billion it’s raised, and has never even proven it has any special technology. Milton’s promises, like claiming Nikola found a way to produce hydrogen more affordably (right now it’s an energy-intensive process), have never been proven. Hydrogen is very energy dense, which could be beneficial in long haul transport, but it has a tricky problem in that you need new fueling stations. Nikola has struggled to find a partner to make a network of such stations.

It also has a battery-electric truck called the Tre it could sell in the meantime, but again, other more reliable companies are circling that space.

Tesla was once heavily doubted and shorted on the stock market, but it’s been an exception to the rule in automotive and Nikola feels particularly dubious.

But some investors remain in, and remarkably the company still has a $5 billion public valuation, though it’s a big drop from its peak of around $30 billion, of course. Maybe the holdouts are true believers, or maybe they’ve just accepted their losses and are staying in at the slim chance that Nikola is able to overcome its obstacles like Tesla did before. But they’re at least still invested enough to vote in shareholder actions, and decisively twisted the knife, ruling that executives at Nikola can’t get away with pilfering millions of dollars more before they ever prove themselves.