The automotive industry can appear like a closed shop when it comes to new names entering the market. Many have tried to design, develop and sell cars – especially electric and hybrid models – but few last the course, and most disappear before the first vehicle runs off the production line.
Automotive is one of the most difficult businesses to succeed in; it’s expensive, high-risk and dominated by a handful of companies.
There are some risk takers out there; Elon Musk is rarely out of the headlines, James Dyson is steadily building up his company’s automotive resources, and Mate Rimac continues to develop the Rimac Concept One supercar – a car famously crashed by Richard Hammond while filming for The Grand Tour TV show.
But they aren’t the only ones. Another is also building up his business to compete in the ultra-competitive automotive industry.
Henrik Fisker has a long history of working and succeeding in the automotive business with successful stints at firms including BMW and Aston Martin, designing cars from the BMW X5 to the Artega GT. He isn’t infallible though; one of his own projects under his then new company, Fisker Automotive, was the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid four-door sports saloon, which had a production run that only lasted from 2011 to 2012 after the car’s battery supplier, A123 Systems filed for bankruptcy.
Fisker subsequently suffered controversy when Tesla Motors filed a lawsuit accusing him of accepting a contract to design the early stages of the Model S (that was at the time destined to become a plug-in hybrid) only to look at the company’s plans before the unveiling of the Karma. However, “overwhelming” evidence in Fisker’s favour brought the lawsuit to a close, with Tesla footing the seven figure sum legal bill.
Much has changed in the intervening years and Fisker is back with his latest creation, the all-electric Fisker EMotion sports saloon, being developed under his new company, Fisker Inc.
Fisker is in a confident mood having learned a great deal from the Karma project: “We are developing the EMotion as a lower-volume vehicle, with lightweight materials and lower cost tooling. This means the overall programme cost is lower. We will also sell our vehicles direct this time, and have developed a new service model to remove that burden from our customers,” he says.
He’s also honest about how the approach to developing the Karma made things challenging and why he won’t make the same mistakes with the EMotion: “At that time no suppliers could provide all the components needed for an electric vehicle, so we had to develop it ourselves or teach suppliers, at a high cost to us. Today there is a growing number of competent EV suppliers delivering a range of products at reasonable prices.”
That change has come about because mainstream vehicle manufacturers are developing electric vehicles forcing suppliers to up their game, but rather than see that as increasing the challenge of getting the EMotion to market because of the greater competition, Fisker appears pragmatic.
“It means we have more choice of affordable parts and suppliers. More customers are aware of electric vehicles, and I believe we will be able to offer more exciting and better-performing electric vehicles as we have a lot of experience, knowhow and new class- leading technologies,” he says.
And Fisker is determined to make the $129,900 (£95,900) EMotion a testbed for a huge array of technologies. Not only will the luxury sports saloon have a range of 400 miles on a fully charged battery, (a splash and dash nine-minute charge will add 125 miles), and a top speed of 161mph, Fisker also wants it to be capable of Level 4 autonomous driving and use solid- state battery technology.
They are big targets, but autonomous driving and solid-state batteries won’t come when the car is launched at the end of 2019, instead they will be added as they become commercially viable – for solid-state batteries that could be after 2023.
“We want to set high goals and are looking at what we think is most beneficial when it comes to autonomous driving modes,” says Fisker.
To that end the EMotion will integrate five lidar sensors to give it a 360D view of the world around it, allowing it to navigate through even the most complicated traffic. To achieve the goals, Fisker is working with a number of partners to develop the technology, including Quanergy for the lidars.
“We prefer to work with partners, as I don’t think anybody can be an expert at everything. We have some great partners but we do some of the integration, data collection and testing in-house,” explains Fisker.
But while autonomous functionality is taking up huge amounts of research and development for all car companies, it is perhaps the possible introduction of solid-state battery technology that is causing the biggest stir for Fisker, with many questioning if it’s possible.
Fisker claims that the technology will cost around £50/kWh, work down to -35°C, is non-flammable and offers 2.5 times the energy density of current lithium-ion systems, while recharging should only take minutes. But why invest in the technology when lithium-ion systems will hopefully give the EMotion its 400-mile range?
“In one way it makes it more challenging, as we are still testing our solid-state battery technology, but on the other hand, it will be easier, as we don’t need a complicated battery pack with active cooling. And our solid-state battery costs less than half of today’s lithium- ion batteries,” he says.
Everyone has seen or heard of the research that states EVs don’t need a range of more than 200 miles, but if the EMotion does achieve 400 miles using current lithium-ion technology, pushing that beyond 500 miles with a solid-state battery system would help the saloon stand head and shoulders above the competition.
“Just like people don’t want to own a petrol car with only a 100-200 mile range, it’s the same for EVs. The research does not relate to how people actually think about their vehicle. If you live in a large city in an apartment with street parking, you only want to go to the supercharger once a month, like you go to the petrol station. The long range and ultra-fast charging will be one of our unique selling points,” says Fisker.
There’s one other aspect of the EMotion that could possibly cause headaches for Fisker and his team developing the car, the multi-material construction which is a mixture of aluminium and carbon fibre. It isn’t a cheap or easy approach, but as with every other aspect of the car, Fisker remains undeterred.
“It’s beneficial for reducing weight and it reduces tooling cost for low-volume production too,” he says, and Fisker does have one ace up his sleeve when it comes to working with different materials: “Our chief McLaren, so he has plenty of experience and expertise in this combination,” he adds.
The automotive industry isn’t likely to become any less competitive and the big manufacturers will always be there, but if Fisker can make the EMotion half the car he wants it to be then he stands a chance of making a success of the business. And in the future, other Fisker models could benefit hugely from the work that is being done on the EMotion to bring it to market.