Investors in Lordstown Motors (RIDE -2.14%) have endured a rough ride in the last few months.

The electric pickup start-up came into 2021 with a lot of promise, but has been weighed down first by accusations from a short-seller and more recently by a company warning that it might not have enough cash to stay in business for another year.

The Lordstown story is illustrative of both the promise, and the risk, that comes with investing in electric vehicle (EV) companies. There's almost no doubt the industry is evolving quickly, and electrification is the future. But there are a lot of companies chasing that future, many of them are in their early days, and some are still pre-revenue.

There will certainly be electric vehicle success stories, but it's almost equally certain that not every EV stock will end up in that category.

It's hard to predict the future and know for sure who the eventual winners will be. But here's why three Fool contributors are focused on Churchill Capital IV (Lucid Motors) (CCIV), NIO (NIO 3.43%), and Ford Motor (F -0.47%) instead of Lordstown.

Cash in front of a vehicle's electric vehicle port.

Image source: Getty Images.

The clearest path to success in a very crowded field

Lou Whiteman (Churchill Capital IV/Lucid Motors): A lot of young EV companies are trying to position themselves as the next Tesla (TSLA 4.57%). To my eyes, Lucid Motors has the best chance of reaching that goal.

Lucid CEO Peter Rawlinson is a Tesla veteran, serving as chief engineer of the company's breakthrough Model S. And Lucid's first vehicle, its Air sedan, is going after that same high-end market that fueled Tesla's initial success. There are other products in the pipeline, including a Model X-like luxury SUV, and a battery-pack product that is reminiscent of Tesla's Powerwall.

Where Lucid is charting its own course is in production. Tesla always prided itself on reinventing the manufacturing process, but Rawlinson at Lucid is attempting to draw on industry best practices for manufacturing and product development. Production of the Air will begin at Lucid's Arizona factory later this year, with the first cars starting at about $70,000 after tax credits and topping out at $160,000.

Lucid said this week it has more than 10,000 reservations for the Air, up from 7,500 back in February. The company hopes to deliver at least 20,000 vehicles next year.

You can't buy Lucid shares yet, but you can buy its merger partner. The company is expected to complete its deal to combine with SPAC Churchill Capital on July 23, at which time the combined company will take the "LCID" ticker. The deal will give Lucid about $4.6 billion in cash to use to pursue its growth plans.

It's too soon to say whether Lucid will fulfill its promise and become the next Tesla. But we've seen enough of its product and its balance sheet that I can say confidently it won't be the next Lordstown either. In a sector full of uncertainty Lucid has one of the more straightforward paths to success of all the EV start-ups, yet it is still only valued at a fraction of Tesla's market capitalization.

This homegrown Tesla fighter is poised for big growth in China

John Rosevear (NIO): China, which is already the world's largest vehicle market, is moving quickly to adopt electric vehicles. And while global giants like Volkswagen and General Motors will almost certainly do well as Chinese consumers embrace electrification, China's home-grown automakers are also finding EVs to be a source of top- and bottom-line growth.

Among the Chinese electric vehicle makers, I think it's NIO that stands out right now. The company has established itself in the hotly contested but profitable premium vehicle segment as the leading domestic Chinese alternative to Tesla -- and it's poised for significant growth over the next few years.

NIO isn't yet profitable, but it's on the right track. The company's loss in the first quarter was narrower than Wall Street had expected, and while the global semiconductor shortage has forced NIO to limit its production over the last couple of months, it has begun setting the stage for further growth over the next couple of years. 

Li is shown on stage with a white NIO ET7, an upcoming electric luxury sedan model.

After leading NIO through a rough patch in early 2020, CEO William Bin Li has the company on very solid footing. Image source: NIO.

Last month, NIO announced that it had struck a deal with its manufacturing partner, state-owned automaker Jianghuai Automobile Group (JAC), to boost the output of its factory to 240,000 NIO vehicles per year, or roughly 20,000 per month. 

That's about double what it can build right now (or at least, what it could build right now if it wasn't for the chip shortage). And with plenty of cash in the bank (about $7.3 billion as of March 31), two new sedan models on the way, and its order books continuing to swell, the company seems a solid bet for growth over the next few years. 

Don't forget the industry titans

Rich Duprey (Ford): When it comes to EVs, investors are not wrong to focus on those companies aiming to reinvent the automotive market: Tesla, NIO, Lucid, and yes, even Lordstown. They're injecting new technologies and designs into an otherwise staid industry.

Yet investors shouldn't ignore legacy automakers, because they also have the technical, industrial, and financial wherewithal to keep pace, and that's why I like Ford as representative of the future of EVs.

Ford is spending big on EVs. Last month it committed to investing $30 billion by 2025 on its EV fleet -- some $8 billion more than it previously said it wanted to spend -- with its Ford+ initiative intending to have as much as 40% of its production be all-electric by 2030.

It was only in February that Ford was doubling its investments in next-generation vehicles to $29 billion, with $22 billion devoted to EVs and $7 billion assigned to autonomous vehicles. It shows what a legacy automaker with the financial capacity to back up its words can achieve in a relatively short amount of time.

A key part of that investment could also be bringing EV battery production in-house as it also said it was opening a new $185 million research and development battery lab.

Ford has already made a big splash in the space with its Mustang Mach-E and the recently unveiled F-150 Lightning. Ford says the Mustang is reportedly responsible for bringing 70% of new buyers to the brand, while the Lightning generated 70,000 customer reservations in just one week after the vehicle's reveal.

While consumer reception of Ford's EVs is obviously a good sign, the real potential for the automaker could be on the commercial side, and, as John has pointed out elsewhere, good luck competing against Ford in the pro market.