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Tesla Motors in dirty-tricks suit against Valley electrocar rival

Elon Musk to pit style skills against upstart startup

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Electrocar poster-child company Tesla Motors, fresh from internecine boardroom battles last year, is embroiled in a new dispute. The company has mounted a lawsuit against a bodywork design outfit it hired to work on a new model, alleging that proprietary information was stolen and the planned Tesla car deliberately sabotaged in order to clear the field for a rival.

The New York Times reports (free registration required) that Tesla started court procedures on Monday in San Mateo against car designer Henrik Fisker and Bernhard Koehler, and the company started by the two men last autumn, Fisker Automotive. Fisker Automotive has VC backing from Kleiner Perkins, and intends to bring out a hybrid car called the Karma.

Tesla contends that Fisker and Koehler, operating as Fisker Coachbuild, took an $875,000 contract to design the body for Tesla's next car, the planned "White Star" four-seater. But, according to the Tesla story, the men supplied an inferior design while at the same time finding out key tech secrets involved in the making of successful electric-drive cars. They then went into business for themselves, using a snazzier-looking design and stolen Tesla knowhow in their own Karma.

"It caused a slight delay in White Star because we could not use the Fisker styling," said PayPal multimillionaire and space-rocket kingpin Elon Musk, who is now also at the helm of Tesla following a management dustup last year. Musk has provided the bulk of Tesla's funding since it was founded.

“The styling was substandard compared to what [Fisker] unveiled for his product. He gave us an inferior work product, and it’s obvious why.”

“I think it’s ironic that Fisker chose to name his car the Karma," added Tesla lawyer Adam Belsky, also speaking to the NYT.

"What he’s done is very bad karma."

Tesla say that the rubbishness of the Fisker bodywork will delay the White Star somewhat, but that the more-affordable car will carry on with a shell designed under Musk's personal supervision.

“We’ll see what people think of cars designed by me versus Fisker," Musk told the NYT. "It’s the amateur versus the professional.”

Both the White Star and the Karma are planned for sale in 2010, at $70k and $80k respectively. The White Star was originally to be an all-electric design like the flagship $98k Tesla Roadster sportscar, which has just gone into limited production - though the cars being supplied at present will need to have certain components, particularly their transmissions, replaced at some point in the near future.

However, a basic White Star is predicted to achieve only 150 miles range on a battery charge, as compared to the Roadster which is supposed to reliably beat 200 miles. Having run flat, both cars need to plug in and sit charging up for several hours, rather than topping off in minutes like ordinary vehicles. Short range and long charging times are the all-electric vehicle's big weaknesses, and the White Star with its cheaper battery is especially vulnerable.

As a result, Tesla has recently announced plans to offer a White Star "Range Extended Vehicle" option, as well as the all-electric jobs. An REV uses a small petrol-engine generator to charge up its battery as it runs, which greatly extends endurance. It differs from a hybrid like the Toyota Prius in that the generator can't usefully drive the car alone - it merely makes the battery last longer. After a long drive - perhaps as much as 400 miles - the battery will be completely flat and the car will slow to a crawl or stop altogether.

The idea of REVs is that on a normal day, driving a typical short commute or school run, one might never need to fire up the generator. The car would only need to burn fuel and emit carbon on rarer, longer journeys.

Reportedly, the Fisker Karma will also be an REV. GM plan to release a similar job, the "Volt", in 2010 - perhaps for $30k, seriously undercutting the battling Valley newcomers. ®

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