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Tesla sues competitor over design ideas

Electric-car maker alleges that company it hired to design its sedan took the job to get access to trade secrets.

Electric-car maker Tesla Motors has filed suit against a competitor, claiming the company stole trade secrets and copied design ideas.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in San Mateo County Superior Court in California. Tesla hired Henrik Fisker, CEO of car design firm Fisker Coachbuild, last year to design the body of its all-electric WhiteStar sedan. In the suit, Tesla alleges that Fisker and Fisker Coachbuild Chief Operating Officer Bernhard Koehler accepted the contract "to gain access to confidential design information and trade secrets, then announced a competing vehicle," according to a New York Times article.

Last year, Tesla said it plans to come out with WhiteStar, an all-electric passenger sedan, in late 2009 or 2010. At the time, it said the price would range from $50,000 to $70,000.

The company, based in San Carlos, Calif., said in February that it plans to produce two types of its WhiteStar sedan--one being completely battery-powered, the other being a so-called range-extended vehicle, or REV, wherein a small gas motor recharges the battery as the car is driven.

Fisker, who last fall started Fisker Automotive--a green-leaning sports car company--recently announced an REV named Karma.

Tesla said it decided to scrap Fisker's design for the WhiteStar and began working on a new design when it found out he was going to be a competitor, according to the Times article.

"I think it's ironic that Fisker chose to name his car the Karma, when what he's done is very bad karma," said Adam C. Belsky, a lawyer at Gross, Belsky & Alonso who represents Tesla, told the Times.

The Times attempted to reach Fisker Automotive, but was unsuccessful. Someone who picked up the phone at the San Francisco law firm that is representing Fisker Coachbuild said it is "the firm's policy not to comment on litigation," according to the newspaper.

Last month, Tesla began commercial production of its all-electric Tesla Roadster, which costs $98,000. The company has dealerships in Los Angeles and Northern California. Production of the roadster had been delayed because of problems with the car's transmission, among other components. The company also had a change in top management last year.