Creating an entirely new global transport market out of thin air takes more than a little chutzpah.
Thats a quality elon musk certainly has in spades. the tesla chief executive was at it again this week, promising significant advances in battery propulsion that may take years to come to fruition.
Trevor milton also has it. or rather, had it. the founder of the hydrogen trucking start-up nikola stepped aside at the start of the week, days after a report from a short-seller attacking the company. the full story of nikola has yet to be written, but mr milton will be remembered for his extravagant claims about his companys technology, which nikola has never fully demonstrated.
Both these would-be transport pioneers set out to build an industry on a new energy source. despite some stylistic similarities in their founders, though, the tesla and nikola approaches could hardly be more different.
The former is a demonstration of the power of full vertical integration in a new technology, all the way from the components to the charging infrastructure and sales network. the other is an attempt to conjure up a fully formed, off-the-shelf construct by stitching together technologies and infrastructure developed elsewhere.
The ability to convey a compelling vision is key to both. but knowing the limits in how far to push the bluster is key.
Mr musk began with a big idea and a tiny operation. turning out a small number of superfast cars and predicting that this would lead to the complete electrification of all transport always required a certain stretching of the imagination. the trick has been to keep the vision front and centre, through thick and thin. more than 15 years on, mr musk is still at it.
Teslas critics often overlook, or minimise, the many advances it has taken to get this far. it still hasnt proven it can bring its technology fully into the mainstream. but it has kept a consistent lead over the rest of the industry.
Nikola started out by taking the technology largely for granted. others have been working on hydrogen-powered vehicles for many years. getting a truck to move by putting a fuel cell in an existing vehicle body is no great mystery (though nikola couldnt always master that trick, to judge from the way it resorted to rolling one of its trucks down a hill in order to film it in motion).
Nikolas main innovation is in its business model. this involves creating trucks and a network of hydrogen refuelling stations so that it can sell trucking companies a complete solution: transport by the mile, at a lower cost than the diesel alternative. along with integrating other companies technology, that means being able to mobilise capital on a large scale.
But bringing a new technology to a mass market is not as straightforward as this makes it sound. achieving optimum efficiency means engineering all the elements to work together as tesla has done.
In nikolas case, that extends to creating the supply chains to support a new energy infrastructure, making hydrogen available at a low enough price to undercut the existing system, with all its sunk costs. mr milton has repeatedly claimed that nikola is already able to supply hydrogen at a cost of $3 a kilogramme, without showing how it plans to achieve that. by contrast, motorists in california paid an average of $16.51 a kg last year.
Nikolas leaders are fond of pointing out that apple doesnt make its own iphones, so there is no reason why the truckmaker cant succeed as an integrator. that simplistic characterisation overlooks the deep technology design and engineering that has gone into apples handsets from the start, including its software platform and, more recently, its control of the silicon.
This brings us back to the role of vision. mr musks ability to sustain the belief that he will ultimately reach his goal has been essential. it is baked into both the tesla brand and stock price, meaning it can continue to raise capital cheaply to pursue the dream.
The nikola vision was always of a different kind. if the timing is right, and the technology already exists in a mature enough form, then a powerful vision can help to bring an industry together. but it cant make up for an immature technology, or the years of hard work that are often needed to bring it into the mainstream.
Nikola will live or die on its ability to deliver working trucks that can travel a mile of highway more cheaply than their diesel rivals, from day one. no amount of musk-style bluster can get around that.