Within the automotive industry, it’s common practice for companies to purchase competitors’ cars and benchmark or reverse-engineer them to learn precisely what they are up against. General Motors has an entire Teardown Lab for dismantling and scrutinizing other vehicles. Ford’s CEO Mark Fields once told Business Insider, “we do teardowns of all major competitive vehicles.”
So it’s understandable that Mercedes-Benz would want to test and teardown a Tesla Model X in the lead up to the launch of its own fully electric SUV. What is strange is what the automaker did to obtain its Model X: Rather than buy one, as is standard, Mercedes’ parent Daimler reportedly rented one in June (paywall, German) from rental service Sixt.
Unbeknownst to Sixt or the owners of the car—a Bavarian couple on vacation in Sicily—Mercedes proceeded to put the Tesla through a series of rigorous tests, according to the rental service, including driving it on their test track and all the way to Barcelona, as well as putting it through heat and vibration analyses. Then it completely dismantled and re-assembled the vehicle before returning a somewhat battered car back to Sixt.
Had it not accidentally left an incriminating piece of paper in the glove compartment from the Mercedes technology center in Sindelfingen, it may have gotten away with the clandestine affair, says news publication Spiegel (paywall, German). That note, coupled with the vehicle’s location-tracking, eventually revealed all.
Sixt says Mercedes’ use of the car violated its rental agreement. Daimler reportedly compensated the owners in part, according to Electrek, but the couple is still demanding full payment for an estimated more than €15,000 ($17,772) in damage (link in German). According to Spiegel, Daimler returned the car with a warped tailgate and damaged paint, as well as trim torn from the front door. Other parts of the trim had been taped back together.
This isn’t the first time that Daimler has engaged in similar behavior. In April, Spiegel reported a different incident when Daimler used a cover company to rent and test German logistics company Deutsche Post DHL’s electric van. After the company discovered what Daimler was doing through the van’s location data, Deutsche Post DHL accused Daimler of industrial espionage. Daimler, in turn, argued that its behavior had been legal under the rental contract and was standard practice among automakers.