Nikola’s chief executive has downplayed the importance of the Badger pick-up truck to its business, in the latest effort by the embattled start-up to distance itself from the pet projects of its departed founder, Trevor Milton.
Since being accused of fraud in a short-seller’s report last month that sent its shares crashing, the company has been making the case to investors and analysts that its core business is producing heavy-duty hydrogen semi-trucks while developing and running a refuelling network for them.
The announcement of the Badger — a pick-up truck running on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells — in February by Mr Milton, then the chief executive, had come as a surprise to some industry watchers.
Yet updates on the truck nevertheless fuelled the rise of the company’s stock price this year. At one point, Nikola grew more valuable than Ford on hopes it would compete in the lucrative North American pick-up market.
“The Badger was an interesting and exciting project to some shareholders, but our institutional shareholders are mostly focused on the business plan,” Mark Russell, Nikola boss, told the Financial Times on Thursday.
“Our core business plan since before we became publicly listed always focused on heavy trucks and hydrogen infrastructure.”
Mr Russell described the Badger differently in February, four months before he moved up in the company to become chief executive. He called it “a game changer” that would “help drive down the cost of the fuel-cell components on our semi-truck while accelerating the hydrogen station rollout”.
Despite being a “project” for the company, the Badger truck accounted for the steepest rises in Nikola shares after it listed through a reverse merger in June.
Nikola’s stock price doubled early in June after Mr Milton posted a tweet announcing that pre-orders for the vehicle would open several weeks later.
In September, its shares rose by more than a third after General Motors announced a deal to manufacture the Badger and take a stake in Nikola.
However, talks between Nikola and GM over terms of a deal have dragged on for weeks since the short-seller’s allegations came to light. The 11 per cent stake in Nikola that GM was due to take was worth $2bn at the time, but has since fallen to about $750m.
Though expected to close on September 30, the deal remains unsigned, although the companies have until December 3 to complete it. Mr Russell said talks were “continuing”, and “were originally anticipated to take up until potentially December 3”, but declined to comment further on them.
A spokesman for GM earlier on Thursday said there was no change to previous statements that discussions were “continuing”.
The pick-up truck was a departure for the company, much like Mr Milton’s November 2019 announcement of breakthrough battery technology.
In February, Mr Milton said in a statement that he had been working on a pick-up for years, and that “Nikola has billions worth of technology in our semi-truck programme, so why not build it into a pick-up truck?”
Four months later, the company said in a regulatory filing that it was focused on heavy trucks and did “not expect to develop production plans for the Badger unless we enter into a strategic partnership with an established” carmaker.
Since Mr Milton’s departure a week after the fraud allegations were made, Nikola executives have steadily rolled back some of the expectations set by the business’s founder.
A presentation last week by its hydrogen executive aimed to clarify what technologies Nikola owned, compared with those it purchased from suppliers — a key area of criticism in last month’s report by short-seller Hindenburg Research.
On Thursday, Mr Russell said all of Nikola’s key targets — including announcing a hydrogen partner this year, and beginning production of its first electric truck with Iveco late next year — remain on track.