In our latest five-question interview with influential people in the auto industry, we spoke with Henrik Fisker. He is the namesake founder and executive chairman of Fisker Automotive, which builds the Karma plug-in hybrid sedan. We sampled a pre-production version when Mr. Fisker brought one to our test track in rural Connecticut in late-January, and we have recently purchased our own to test. This discussion happened prior to the problem with our test car.
Since we last met Henrik in person, the government announced it had suspended $360 million in advanced-vehicle technology manufacturing loans slated for the next Fisker model, code named “Nina,” after the Karma didn’t hit the sales targets. (Henrik says he is renegotiating the loans.) And following that speed bump, Mr. Fisker stepped down as CEO and took the title of executive chairman. (He was replaced by former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda.)
Mr. Fisker is known for designing some iconic luxury sports cars in the 2000s, including the Aston Martin DB9 and BMW Z8.
Like Tesla, Fisker is trying to do the impossible: build a breakthrough car company from the ground up that utilizes an all-new technology. It is a formidable challenge.
How do you foresee the electric car market developing from here?
I think there’s a huge difference between a pure electric car, an electric car with a range extender, and a hybrid electric vehicle.
What we’re doing is an electric vehicle with a range extender, and I think by far, that’s going to be the biggest market in the years to come. It really defines the car for what it really is, which is ultimate freedom, which is to get as far as you want whenever you want, and that’s what the car’s all about. It’s right now the only technology that allows the consumer to drive in his daily commute, [generating] zero emissions and using no gasoline at all. It also allows the consumer to use the car on a long trip.
I think the pure electric car market will still stay fairly small in the immediate future, and I think the hybrid cars that we have today are just going to meld in to become sort of a state-of-the-art requirement for most automakers. But it doesn’t really revolutionize the way the consumer uses a vehicle.
Aren’t plug-in hybrids expensive with two complete drivetrains?
We’re definitely hitting the reality where we will see batteries getting cheaper, but maybe not at as fast a pace as we all expected. So if you want to have an electric car that has a range of a couple hundred miles or 300 miles, a 50- or 60-kWh battery [will continue to be] extremely expensive.
With an electric vehicle with a range extender you don’t need to burden the consumer with a too-big battery when he doesn’t really need it in his day-to-day commute. You really only need the battery range for that daily commute-about 30 miles for the average daily commute in the U.S.
I don’t believe pure electric cars are going to be a nationwide phenomenon, because of the distances, particularly in the U.S. The distances are way too vast.
When do you predict electric cars and plug-in hybrids will become more affordable?
Over the coming years, I could see several opportunities where gasoline engines are produced by certain carmakers in very high volume and provided to various carmakers who make electric cars with range extenders, because the gasoline engine only functions as a range extender, so you can take cost out of that gasoline engine in the future. And you can also produce in very high volumes for various carmakers since it [would no longer be] the heart of the automobile.
We might also see customers ordering their electric vehicles with range extenders in different configurations, meaning if you only have 10 miles or 5 miles to work, you might order EVER with a smaller battery, and again you are able to reduce costs.
Within the next four to six years, I think we’re going to see a huge improvement [and become] competitive in terms of price point. We need a couple of cycles of cars: The Karma will be the first cycle. And the [planned Fisker] Nina - we’re already going to see a huge improvement there. And then I think in the third cycle, you’re going to be very, very close.
How long do you expect government loans, such as those Fisker has received, as being necessary to fund the production of electric vehicles?
Whether or not the funding is needed in the future for electric cars, I think is really dependent on how fast the U.S. wants this technology to get on the market, and how competitive we want to be with the rest of the world Obviously China and Japan, Europe, and other countries, are getting various subsidies to get their electric vehicles on the market. It’s a very hard question to answer.
We can survive without the DOE, but with the DOE loans, what they have achieved is to bring certain technology quicker to market. I think that’s the whole point of these loans. And again it’s a loan and hopefully we can pay it back ahead of time.
In light of the suspension of DOE loans to Fisker, is there still a potential for future products beyond the Karma?
Obviously, there will be some delay because the negotiations for these new milestones are taking longer than we anticipated. And obviously that has probably a lot to do with the political issues that surrounded this entire loan program, and unfortunately, we have been put in as a political football, in this entire situation. It’s hard to say how long this will be.
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