Tesla sued for $2 billion by hydrogen truck startup over alleged patent infringement

Nikola Motor Co, which makes hydrogen-powered semi trucks, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against electric automaker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) alleging design patent infringements.

Nikola is seeking $2 billion in damages in return.

Nikola was founded in 2014, and the company showed off its first two products — an electric four-wheel offroad vehicle and a hydrogen-electric semi truck — in May of 2016. It has since added a second semi truck to its eventual lineup, teased some all-electric personal watercraft, and announced plans for a $1 billion factory in Arizona.

Salt Lake City, Utah-based Nikola claims it was issued six design patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between February and April 2018 for its wrap windshield, mid-entry door, fuselage, fender, side cladding and the overall design of the Nikola One.

The complaint filed by Nikola lays out a number of claims that, viewed together, the company says prove Tesla cribbed from the startup’s patents. Nikola points to supposed similarities in the trucks’ front fenders, wraparound windshields, mid-entry doors, aerodynamic fuselage (with similar drag coefficients), and more as evidence that Tesla copied its design. It also claims that a recruiter for Tesla, Aaron Hoyos, tried to poach Nikola’s chief engineer just a few months after the startup unveiled its hydrogen semi truck, and that this is evidence that Tesla was aware of Nikola’s unique design features.

Additionally, Nikola says it was able to identify that Tesla’s truck might be infringing on its designs from spy shots that littered the internet in the weeks leading up to Tesla’s mid-November 2017 reveal. The startup says it sent a cease and desist letter (which is included as an exhibit in the lawsuit) to Tesla on November 7th asking the company to delay its announcement until the issue was resolved, but that Tesla never responded.

Nikola says that Tesla’s truck is causing “confusion in the market,” and claims that “Tesla’s infringement has harmed Nikola’s ability to attract investors and partners because investors can now partner with Tesla to have an alternative fuel semi-truck.” The damage from this alleged infringement, per Nikola’s calculations, is “in excess of $2 billion.”

A Tesla spokesman rejected the claims.

“It’s patently obvious there is no merit to this lawsuit,” a Tesla spokesman told Reuters in an email.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi, its electric heavy duty truck, in November. The company has not given much details of the Semi, but has said that the truck would begin production in 2019.

Nikola has sparred with Tesla before, including how it chose to use the first name of the same famous investor when founding the company. Most recently Nikola claimed in April that, while it has over $8 billion in preorders for the different versions of its semi trucks, all those reservations will “be refunded 100%” and that the startup “won’t use your money to operate our business” — statements that appear to be obvious barbs at Tesla, which holds nearly $1 billion in customer deposits for the Model 3 and other various announced products, according to recent filings.

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