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Three Thoughts on the Fisker Debacle


electric carOn April 24, executives from the grievously wounded plug-in-hybrid firm Fisker Automotive will face a House of Representatives oversight committee. The question of the day: Why did the Department of Energy loan nearly $200 million to a company that is now facing bankruptcy? (Secondary purpose: to allow grandstanding congressmen to repeat, as many times as possible, the phrase “Solyndra on Wheels.”)

I was on the showroom floor at the 2008 Detroit auto show when Fisker pulled the cloth off the concept version of its Karma sedan. I’m a strong supporter of government funding for clean energy research and deployment. Yet for years, I’ve wondered why anyone, public or private, would put money into Fisker Automotive. Maybe tomorrow’s hearing will help us understand the Department of Energy’s motivation. More likely, it’ll simply yield a lot of demagoguing. Either way, we’ll have a reporter on the scene to find out, so check this space. In the meantime, three quick thoughts about the Fisker drama:

1. Plenty of people have seen this disaster coming for years.

I’m frankly astonished it has taken this long for Fisker to unravel. The red flags began appearing almost immediately after Fisker unveiled the concept version of the Karma in 2008. One month after the car’s debut, Henrik Fisker’s former employer, Elon Musk at Tesla Automotive, sued him for fraud, breach of contract, and theft of trade secrets. Tesla lost the case, but the warning signs kept appearing. The company churned through three battery suppliers in three years. As PrivCo notes in this amazing timeline, Fisker established a pattern of awarding supply contracts “not necessarily to the best supplier, or the supplier who offers the best price…but rather to companies that were owners and investors in Fisker.” For a full account of Fisker’s stumbles, see Katie Fehrenbacher’s excellent piece at GigaOm.

As the years rolled by, Fisker observers became increasingly suspicious that the company didn’t even possess a working car. At the 2008 debut, Fisker announced that the Karma would go on sale in late 2009. Yet by early 2010, when Bill Gifford profiled the company for Popular Science, no one but the chauffeur for the Crown Prince of Denmark had driven even an early prototype. (By contrast, General Motors, in an effort to prove that the Chevy Volt project was real, was giving just about anyone who would ask rides in prototypes of all stages).

The delays, the secrecy, and the general sketchiness surrounding the company alienated plenty of potential industry allies and electric-vehicle advocates. None of this would matter much if Fisker had finally emerged from the garage with a fantastic car. But….

2. Fisker Automotive’s sole product—the Karma plug-in hybrid—is not a good car.

That’s putting it politely. Almost as soon as Karmas hit the road, some of them started catching on fire. Last September, Consumer Reports gave the car a “failing grade.” The $107,850 test model died on the track; Fisker hauled it away on a flatbed truck. “We buy about 80 cars a year,” Tom Mutchler wrote on the Consumer Reports web site, “and this is the first time in memory that we have had a car that is undriveable before it has finished our check-in process.”

For sake of argument, let’s assume there were no huge technical glitches, no catastrophic failures. Even then the car falls short. For one, this eco-car isn’t particularly efficient. By the EPA’s calculations, the Karma gets 32 miles of electric-only driving range; in that mode, it averages 52 mpge (miles per gallon equivalent). Once the battery is depleted and the gas engine kicks in, fuel economy plummets to 20 mpg. The Chevy Volt is a small sedan, not a luxury barge, so it’s not really a Karma competitor, but because it uses the same type of series-hybrid drivetrain, it’s a useful point of contrast. The Volt gets 98 mpge running on electricity, 37 mpg running on gas.

Disappointing fuel economy aside, the Karma is cramped inside, with so little interior space that the EPA actually classified the enormous sedan as a “subcompact” car. And at 5,300 pounds, the car is leaden. Cutting weight down is critical for a plug-in hybrid, because every additional pound saps that much more driving range from the battery. Yet it’s entirely possible to find an armored Benz that weighs less than the Karma. Last year, Fisker brought a few finished cars to town for journalists to take on a spin through Manhattan. Rolling through Times Square, the Karma felt more like a Lenco Bearcat than a hyperefficient car of the future.

3. The sad tale of Fisker portends little or nothing for the future of electric and hybrid vehicles.

At the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has a smart analysis of Fisker’s downfall under the headline “What Killed the New Electric Car?” The headline is an irresistible reference to Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary, about the rise and fall of the General Motors EV1. The thing is, the Fisker Karma isn’t representative of the New Electric Car, and it would be a shame if people began to think so.

As in any product category, there are good specimens and bad ones. The Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Model S are all quick, quiet, well-engineered, technically sophisticated vehicles that point the way toward the future of the auto industry—a future in which drivers can choose what fuel they want to rely on for transportation. The Fisker Karma is just kind of a dud.

Ultimately, the Fisker debacle, by itself, isn’t enough forestall the electrification of the automobile. The important variables are the price of oil and the cost of batteries. The big carmakers—the ones with the scale and the power to move the market—have all realized that they need to learn how to build cars that run on something other than gasoline. Most of them are moving very slowly. But if oil prices spike again, or carbon pollution is finally assigned a price, they’ll start moving much faster, and the story of Fisker Automotive will become a half-forgotten cautionary tale.

Image courtesy of or IFCAR, via WikiMedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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