Bob Simpson crouched and waited for his cue. When the silk sheet finally slipped off the truck, the engineer scurried behind the curtains, crawled underneath the stage, and plugged in the power cord. The Nikola One prototype, a colossal red-white-and-blue semitruck, lit up, prompting hundreds of investors to clink their Champagne glasses and take videos with their phones. “Oh, that thing is so awesome,” said Trevor Milton, Nikola’s chief executive officer, with the controlled energy of a youth pastor. As he paced back and forth on stage at Nikola Corp.’s Salt Lake City headquarters, rubbing his hands, he almost did sound like he was pushing a new religion. “We’ve been waiting so long to show this to the world,” he said. “You have no idea. It’s hard to even contain.”
Simpson and his business partner had been contracted as engineers to design and build the prototype’s electric drivetrain. Simpson was excited to be working on a vehicle that had long been considered a clean energy white whale by investors, environmentalists, and the industry as a whole: a mass-produced hydrogen-electric hybrid freight hauler that would have far more range than a Tesla and could be refueled in about the same amount of time as an internal combustion model.