Enlarge /. A 2018 Nikola video showed the prototype Nikola One rolling down a flat hill in Utah. Nikola now says it never said the truck drove on its own.
The original design for Nikola's flagship truck was bought by founder Trevor Milton from a designer in Croatia, according to two knowledgeable people, although the company claimed in a 2018 lawsuit that the vehicle was originally designed by Mr. Milton "in his basement .." ”
The truck, the Nikola One, is at the center of a $ 2 billion lawsuit against Tesla in which Nikola claims its rival has breached its patents. Nikola in this lawsuit alleges that Mr. Milton began designing the model in 2013 and that other company employees worked on it later.
In a rebuttal of the lawsuit filed last week, Tesla claimed Nikola could not protect the designs because they did not come from the company itself, but from Adriano Mudri, a Croatian-based designer.
Two people with knowledge of the transaction told the Financial Times that Nikola founder bought the designs in 2015 after meeting Mr. Mudri while visiting electric vehicle maker Rimac in Croatia.
While Tesla's filing identifies the designer as the source of the original truck drawings, it does not include details of the transaction, does not state that any money was exchanged, or that Mr. Milton himself orchestrated the purchase.
The latest twist comes when Nikola is still wavering earlier this month from allegations that he passed the technology he bought as his own and while making promotional videos, covering supplier names on key components with stickers. Nikola said it never claimed to have made the components.
In a report that fueled Nikola’s stock, Mr. Milton was accused of spreading an "ocean of lies" about the company's technology and products by short seller Hindenburg Research.
A little over a week later, Mr. Milton decided to leave the company, telling staff that he would “defend himself against false accusations made against me by outside critics”. The 39-year-old founder has repeatedly insisted that he has not lied to or deceived anyone about the trucks.
The lawsuit against Tesla, filed during Mr. Milton's tenure, focuses on the origins of the designs for the "Nikola One" truck.
The company claims that Mr Milton worked on the truck for two years before becoming dissatisfied with its designs and hiring designer Steve Jennes in 2015. The lawsuit states that the couple then went through a lengthy process to create the final design between them.
By the time it was finished, Nikola had spent "several million dollars developing the Nikola One" according to the lawsuit.
In its counter-argument, Tesla said that the designs for the model came from Mr. Mudri, a designer at Rimac who called it a "Road Runner". The origins of the design could raise other questions about Nikola’s intellectual property.
"Trevor Milton has decided not to give the Road Runner Concept Truck to the [US Patent and Trademark Office] with misleading intent," Tesla said in its filing.
Nikola said, “The Nikola One was designed and patented by Nikola. It is common practice to license third-party designs during vehicle development, and although Nikola acquired a license for Adriano Mudri's designs at the beginning of the process, he was not part of the design team and his designs are significantly different from the design invented by Nikola for Nikola One . "
According to several people with knowledge of the business, Mr. Milton tried unsuccessfully to partner with Rimac on a number of projects in 2015.
On a trip to Rimac's headquarters on the outskirts of Zagreb, he met Mr. Mudri, the company's designer, who had designed a futuristic truck as part of an earlier graduate project.
Mr. Milton bought the computer drawings and 3D virtual model of the vehicle for several thousand dollars from Mr. Mudri, according to two people.
The Road Runner name lasted for months. One person familiar with the development of the Nikola One said, "Road Runner … has been the internal name for Nikola's project throughout the time we have been working on it."
A screenshot of a Financial Times Nikola document shows 13 people invited to collaborate on the Nikola Roadrunner Prototype Project.
Another screenshot shows an early version of the Nikola website, which shows a truck that is identical to the Road Runner in Tesla's court records.
Nikola didn't mention Mr. Mudri or Rimac, or say the designs were purchased when he filed against Tesla in 2018.
Representatives of Mr Milton declined to comment. Rimac also declined to comment.
© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. No distribution, reproduction or modification.