Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) has had a remarkable year, with its shares up more than 350% in 2020 even after a recent hiccup thanks to the growing investor excitement about the auto industry going electric.

But Tesla is hardly the only choice for investors interested in buying into the electrification trend. There are a number of other companies, some only recently public, that are focused on modernizing powertrains as part of the global effort to reduce greenhouse gasses and cut dependence on fossil fuels. While few are flying under the radar right now, some arguably offer better opportunities right now following Tesla's meteoric rise.

With all respect to Tesla, here's why we're focused on electric vehicle stocks Tortoise Acquisition (NYSE:SHLL), NIO (NYSE:NIO), and Workhorse Group (NASDAQ:WKHS) instead.

An electric vehicle getting a charge.

Image source: Getty Images.

A way for truckers to go green without replacing their trucks

Lou Whiteman (Tortoise): Tortoise Acquisition is a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that is in the process of merging with electric drivetrain specialist Hyliion. While Tortoise wins high marks for a cute name (SPACs are sometimes called "shell companies"), the focus here is on what they are buying.

Hyliion isn't going to build an electric vehicle itself; rather, the company is developing electric and hybrid powertrains for heavy trucks. The company recently began selling its first system, which converts a traditional diesel-powered truck into a hybrid. Its future, called Hypertruck ERX, is an all-new electric drivetrain for tractor-trailers.

Given the number of miles heavy-duty trucks travel, the amount of fuel they burn, and the emissions they produce, tractor-trailers are a natural target for electrification. The issue is it takes a lot of energy to power a fully loaded truck, and the batteries required to power the truck and trailer over long distances add weight and cost to the final design while limiting cargo space.

But Hyliion's drivetrain doesn't require a huge battery pack, instead using a hydrogen fuel cell or natural-gas-powered generator to recharge itself mid-trip.

Hyliion is currently losing money, burning through about $2.7 million in the first quarter, but sales are beginning to ramp up and the merged entity will have more than $500 million in cash as a cushion.

The two companies expect to complete the merger by the end of the current quarter, retaining the Hyliion name and changing its ticker to "HYLN." It's worth noting Hyliion is relatively asset-light, contracting with established auto industry supplier Dana (NYSE:DAN) to manufacture its designs and ship them directly to customers.

There is a lot of hype surrounding vehicle electrification right now, but Hyliion is a company with real, shipping product and a huge potential addressable market. Trucking companies are willing to go green, but they do not want to have to replace their entire fleets overnight and are cautious about relying too heavily on upstarts. By selling only drivetrains, Hyliion can disrupt the industry without completely overturning the status quo.

Tesla's stock is out ahead thanks to a fast start, but as the fable goes, don't underestimate the tortoise in the long run.

After a near-death experience, NIO is flying high

John Rosevear (NIO): NIO has already had quite a turnaround in 2020. China's homegrown Tesla challenger began the year dangerously short on cash and losing sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, it's flush with cash and its sales are soaring. How did that happen?

NIO gave up a lot -- about a quarter of its China-based assets -- to secure roughly $1 billion in bailout funding from economic-development authorities in its home province of Anhui in May. As part of that deal, NIO agreed to relocate its headquarters, build a factory, and help nurture a local smart-vehicle business ecosystem in Anhui's capital city, Hefei.

A blue NIO ES8, an upscale electric SUV.

An overhaul and added range have helped sales of NIO's flagship ES8 grow in 2020. Image source: NIO.

On balance, that was a good deal that seemed to ensure NIO's survival for a while longer, and its stock price surged. A strong second-quarter earnings report and upbeat guidance helped sustain the stock's bull run in August. And more recently (by which I mean last week), NIO took advantage of that soaring stock price to raise about $1.7 billion via a secondary stock offering. 

Now, its balance sheet is in great shape, it's buying back some of what it gave up in the bailout deal in May, and it has plenty of cash to fund the next few phases of its growth plan.

Did I mention sales growth? NIO's deliveries hit an all-time high in August, but that record isn't likely to stand for long. Recent assembly line tweaks at its manufacturing partner have given it additional production capacity starting this month. 

NIO was short of cash in January in part because it spent heavily to build out its sales and service network last year. With sales booming now, that looks like a smart decision — and it's one of many that has NIO's business headed in the right direction at high speed. 

A $6 billion bet on the USPS

Rich Smith (Workhorse Group): Tesla is fine company, and makes a fine automobile. If I'm being honest, when I finally take the plunge and buy an electric car myself, it'll probably be a Tesla (unless, that is, Volkswagen has perfected its battery-powered electric microbus by then).

That being said, Tesla stock has gone up a lot this year. It looks tremendously overvalued to me today. If you ask me to name an electric vehicle stock that I hope will outperform Tesla, my first hunch is to go with the lesser-known Workhorse Group.

I've been following Workhorse since way back in 2015, you see, back when the company was first mentioned as a contender for a U.S. Postal Service contract to buy 180,000 new trucks to upgrade its delivery fleet. Back then, Workhorse was just one of 15 car companies contending to win the USPS contract. It was also something of an underdog, bidding an electric "Workhorse" truck equipped with a "HorseFly" roof-mounted drone to make deliveries off the beaten path -- versus more traditional offerings from more traditional automakers.

Fast forward five years, though, and last month we learned that Workhorse is now one of just three companies short-listed by the Postal Service to win the contract -- valued at some $6.3 billion. (The other bidders are a team comprising Michigan's Morgan Olson LLC, paired with Turkey's Karsan; and an alliance between Ford (NYSE:F) and Oshkosh (NYSE:OSK)).  

If I were a gambler, I'd probably put my money on industry heavyweights Ford and Oshkosh and their traditional internal combustion-powered offering to win this contract. But Workhorse has beaten the odds already, getting this far. It's got by far the more innovative offering with an all-electric vehicle (Karsan's is only a mild hybrid) -- especially if it can get the Post Office to bite at its HorseFly idea.

If Workhorse can win this contract, and then parlay a vote of confidence from the USPS into even more contract wins with other buyers, I think it'll be an odds-on bet to outperform Tesla stock going forward.