Tesla vs. Fisker: A battle over high-end green car technology

By John Decker

April 17, 2008 at 2:27pm

A California jury may have to decide the fate of two companies racing to deliver the first luxury hybrid sports cars to the American auto market.

On Monday, Tesla Motors filed a lawsuit against Fisker Automotive, its design subsidiary and two of its top executives, Hendrick Fisker and Bernhard Koehler, alleging fraud, breach of contract and violation of a confidentiality agreement.

Tesla Roadster
Tesla Roadster

Tesla, the manufacturer of an electric two-door sports sedan, is in the design phase of an electric hybrid four-door sports sedan which they call the WhiteStar project.

In the lawsuit Tesla claims it paid $800,000 to Fisker CoachBuild, the design arm of Fisker Automotive, to “perform body and interior styling work on the WhiteStar project.”

The suit alleges that Fisker Coachbuild had “no experience with electric-hybrid cars prior to working with Tesla,” and that Fisker was “using trade-secret and confidential information provided by Tesla and the funds paid by Tesla to develop their own directly competing electric-hybrid sports sedan. Moreover, Fisker’s styling work for Tesla was substandard, as defendants were diverting the best styling ideas from Tesla to their own secret, competing project.”

Fisker Kharma
Fisker Kharma

Tesla manufactures the Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car capable of going from 0-60 in just 3.9 seconds. The 2008 Roadster, with a base price of $98,000, went into production about a month ago and has already sold out. Tesla is taking reservations for the 2009 model: A $5,000 deposit will put you on the waiting list.

The two companies have a slew of Silicon Valley heavyweights as investors or board members.

Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and Zip2, is an investor and the chairman of Tesla. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as Jeffrey Skoll, former president of eBay and executive producer of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, are investors in Tesla. Steve Westly, a former controller for the state of California and a former eBay exec, is a director.

In January, Fisker announced a multimillion dollar investment by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the appointment of Kleiner partner Ray Lane as a director at Fisker Automotive. At the time, Lane said Kleiner believed “that Fisker Automotive’s groundbreaking, forward-thinking design stands to pave the way for a greener and more efficient future.” The day following the announcement of the Kleiner investment Fisker unveiled the Fisker Kharma plug-in hybrid sports car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The lawsuit puts Kleiner Perkins in an interesting position as an investor in both Google and Fisker. Additionally, Kleiner adviser Al Gore is a director at Google while fellow Google board members Sergey Brin and Larry Page are investors in Tesla.

The suit by Tesla seeks monetary damages from Fisker as well as preventing Fisker from “offering for sale or selling any automobile or automobile design incorporating (Tesla’s) confidential and proprietary information.”

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