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Tesla says embattled electric truck maker Nikola itself stole truck design

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The electric truck wars are getting even more charged. In a court document filed this week, Tesla accused rival Nikola of stealing the design for Nikola's electric truck from Croatian car company Rimac Automobili. 

Tesla made the claim in a filing responding to a lawsuit in which Nikola alleges that Tesla stole Nikola's design of its electric truck— the Nikola One — for the Tesla Semi, which was unveiled in 2017.

Nikola introduced its electric truck in 2016. The Nikola One and the Tesla Semi resemble each other, sporting a curved windshield, bullet-like aerodynamic front and silver finish. Nikola is suing Tesla for $2 billion for infringing on its design, which Nikola claims it patented. Both companies are named after Nikola Tesla, whose technological inventions defined much of the 20th century.

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Tesla's lawsuit includes pictures of a number of electric trucks that came out before Nikola's model. Tesla

Elon Musk's company claims that it couldn't have stolen the design of its truck from Nikola because its competitor itself stole the design from Rimac first, according to Tesla's court filing. Rimac designed its own electric truck as a concept car, and entered it into competitions as early as 2010. Rimac's Road Runner concept truck, like the Nikola One and the Tesla Semi, also features a curved windshield and a bullet-like front. 

According to Tesla's suit, Nikola founder Trevor Milton met with Rimac's head of design in either late 2014 or 2015, and allegedly was aware of Rimac's design before filing a patent for its truck as much as a year later. Since Nikola didn't give credit to Rimac on its patent application, Tesla argues in its court filing that Nikola's own patent claim is invalid.

Nikola said it will respond to those claims. "Nikola alleges that Tesla's semi-truck infringes not only certain Nikola design patents and utility patents, but also its trade dress," a Nikola spokesperson said.

Rimac and Tesla did not respond to requests for a comment.

Nikola's sudden skid

Tesla's claim of intellectual property theft is the latest question surrounding its rival. Earlier this month, Nikola landed a $2 billion deal with General Motors to co-develop a truck powered by a mix of hybrid electric and hydrogen battery. Shares of Nikola shot up on the news. 

Days later, however, investment firm Hindenburg Research released a detailed report alleging that Nikola founder Milton had made numerous false or exaggerated claims about his company.

The most notable claim centered on an earlier video that Nikola had released purportedly showing its hydrogen-powered truck in operation, being driven on a road. After Hindenburg's report came out, Nikola admitted that the ignition of the truck in the video was off and that the truck was merely rolling downhill.

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Both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are reportedly looking into whether Nikola has made false claims to investors. Earlier this week, Milton resigned as the company's CEO. GM has said it vetted Nikola and its technology and that it is sticking with its partnership with the company.

That hasn't reassured investors. Nikola shares have plunged from a high of $93 to just under $20, sliding another 10% on Thursday.

"Investors have been assigning a pretty de minimis chance that Nikola would collect $2 billion from Tesla, but it is also pretty well established that Nikola has the patent to the design," Dan Ives, an analyst who follows both Nikola and Tesla for brokerage firm Wedbush Securities, said in a note. "It's like two little kids fighting in a sandbox."

Ives, who on Wednesday downgraded Nikola's stock to "sell," said the company could struggle to roll out its truck on schedule and that advances in electrical batteries will make hydrogen fuel-cell technology too expensive to mass produce.

"It's been a Twilight Zone of a few weeks for investors in Nikola, and this just adds to the agita," he said.

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