Tesla Semi lawsuit drags on with small victory for Nikola Motor

Almost two years ago, Nikola Motors surprised the trucking market by filing a $2 billion lawsuit alleging that the Tesla Semi copied several design elements from the Nikola One, the truck-maker’s flagship hydrogen long hauler. News about the patent lawsuit has been scarce for over a year, but recent updates indicate that Nikola has snatched a small victory from the Silicon Valley-based electric car maker. 

Nikola’s case listed several characteristics of the One that were allegedly copied by Tesla. These included the Semi’s wraparound windshield, mid-entry door, front fenders, and the all-electric truck’s aerodynamic shape. To highlight its point, Nikola stated that the similar drag coefficients between the One (0.37) and the Semi (0.36) was further proof that the battery electric long hauler was copied from the hydrogen fuel-cell sleeper cab. 

Excerpts from Nikola’s lawsuit pointed out that the Semi’s design had caused confusion among the One’s customers, diverting sales from the hydrogen truck maker to Tesla. Nikola also argued that these confusions might result in the Semi’s problems being attributed to the One, such as those resulting from Tesla’s batteries and Autopilot software. These, according to Nikola, are causing damage to its brand. 

The Tesla Semi visits Yandell Truckaway. (Photo: Arash Malek)

“Tesla has had problems with its batteries starting fires and its autonomous features causing fatal accidents. Should these problems arise with the Tesla Semi, the market will attribute these problems to Nikola because of the similarities between the two vehicles. Customers will also impute the Tesla Semi’s limitations (distance and charging time) to Nikola, which will make Nikola’s product less appealing to customers,” the hydrogen truck maker noted in its complaint. 

Unfortunately for Nikola, cases that are centered on design patents are very difficult to prove. This point was especially highlighted in August 2018 when the US Patent Office awarded Tesla a pair of design patents for the Semi that actually listed the Nikola One as a reference, which meant that the examiner deemed Tesla’s design as unique. For Nikola to win its case against Tesla, it would have to prove that the US Patent Examiner made a mistake when comparing the Semi and the One’s designs, and that’s a very difficult point to argue. 

The Nikola One hydro-electric semi truck. | Credit: Nikola

Yet if recent tweets from Nikola CEO Trevor Milton are any indication, it appears that the hydrogen truck maker has stood by its lawsuit against Tesla. As it turned out, Tesla had filed a request with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board in September 2019 asking for a review to invalidate Nikola’s side door patent for the One. This request seems to have failed. Granted, it is a very small victory for Nikola, considering that it is fighting an incredibly steep uphill battle. Still, the dismissal of Tesla’s effort is a victory for the hydrogen truck maker nonetheless. 

“Tesla loses bid to invalidate @nikolamotor patents in USPTO dispute. USPTO not only upheld Nikola semi truck important patents but refused Tesla’s ask to modify our patents. Two billion-dollar lawsuit moving forward. We will defend our company’s IP no matter who it is,” Milton wrote on Twitter. 

In a statement to Forbes, Nikola Chief Legal Officer Britton Worthen lauded the decision, stating that the development was “obviously favorable” and that the company believes the matter was “decided correctly.” Tesla, for its part, has declined to comment. That being said, a Tesla spokesperson has noted in the past that “It’s patently obvious there is no merit to this lawsuit.” Elon Musk does not seem to be bothered by the suit either, noting in a previous earnings call that the entire situation is a case of fate loving irony. 

Ultimately, the Nikola One may very well be beaten to the market by the Tesla Semi. While the One was unveiled prior to Tesla’s all-electric truck, prototypes of the Semi have been conducting real-world testing since the vehicles were unveiled. Recent sightings of the all-electric trucks suggest that the vehicles are now being tested in harsh conditions. This hints that Tesla may actually be on track to start early production runs of the Semi sometime later this year, as hinted at by the company in the past. Nikola, for its part, seems to be on track to release the Nikola Two, a shorter-range, battery electric truck, before the One. The company expects to start production of its trucks next year.

Tesla Semi lawsuit drags on with small victory for Nikola Motor
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