The investigation into a Texas house fire that apparently started in a 2 month old Fisker Karma continues, with an EV expert weighing in with his opinion that the packaging of the combustion engine that drives the Fisker’s generator was likely the cause of the fire, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration saying it is looking into the incident, and the car’s owner and his attorneys firing back after Fisker initially implied there might be fraud or foul play.
Automotive News asked Jon Bereisa, CEO of Auto Lectrification, an EV consulting firm, for his opinion. Bereisa is perhaps singularly qualified to discuss electric vehicles, having been both the chief engineer of General Motors’ EV1 project and also the systems architect for the Chevy Volt. Bereisa told AN that based on a test drive and his examination of the Karma’s layout, he thinks the cramped engine compartment and excess heat most likely caused the fire, not the car’s battery pack.
“That engine is shoehorned into that bay, because they had to use a larger engine, because it was too heavy a car. As a result, there’s no room for exhaust routing and heat shielding to route the heat away… [the Karma is] using the hell out of that motor-generator.”
Bereisa also noted how tightly packed the exhaust system is. In those circumstances, a fuel, oil or even coolant (glycol is flammable) leak could ignite from heat or a hot surface. The consultant also pointed to the burned Karma’s owner’s remarks. Jeremy Gutierrez, the owner of the burned Fisker Karma, and CEO of iEnergy, an electrical power marketer, said that he smelled burning rubber just before the fire broke out.
Bereisa pointed out that, “You don’t smell rubber with batteries, but you will if it’s something on the engine.” Bereisa also said that since the car had just been driven on errands, the battery pack was likely drained and no longer contained enough energy or waste heat hot enough to ignite. “If the [battery] pack were to burn down the car, you would see where it started and reached the [battery] case… There’s more odds that it’s a conventional, heat-related problem in packaging and heat-related leaks.”
Fisker is agreeing that the battery pack, which uses cells manufactured by A123, wasn’t the cause of the fire, though it has sent a team of engineers to pore over the charred Karma’s hulk. That team is beginning to annoy Gutierrez, already a bit miffed that Fisker cast aspersions on his character, raising the possibility of “fraud or malicious intent”.
Gutierrez is so annoyed that he’s gotten his attorneys involved:
Mr. Guitterez fully accommodated the precise and somewhat peculiar demands of Fisker Automotive, who sent their self-proclaimed SWAT Team of engineers and inspectors (that included their own forensic cause and origin investigator) to the Guitterez home within 24 hours of the fire. They descended upon the Guitterez home in alarming numbers and immediately demanded a 24-hour lockdown of his home, including the remains of the Fisker Karma vehicle. They also cordoned off portions of the Guitterez home with non-transparent tarps to block the view from the public. Fisker even had access to eyewitnesses, who were interviewed by Fisker investigators and those investigators were shown video footage of the Fisker vehicle on fire before any other part of the garage.
Guitterez’s lawyers have demanded that Fisker to end its probe “immediately.”
For its part, Fisker still considers the cause of the fire as “yet to be ascertained.” A company spokesman said,
“There are myriad combustible materials that could be in the garage, in the wheel arch, or picked up on the roadside. They think the source is around the Karma, but they have not determined any cause yet. We have investigative teams, three insurance companies and the local fire chief all with their opinions. There are some question marks.”
When asked about Bereisa’s theories, the spokesman said, “The Karma has been through all regulatory and certification checks.”
Meanwhile, though Robert Baker, the chief fire inspector for Fort Bend County, Texas, continues to say that the Karma started the fire, his investigation is still incomplete, and NHTSA is started to show some interest.
“Yes, the Karma was the origin of the fire,” Baker said. “But what exactly caused that we don’t know at this time.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement that it “is aware of the incident and in contact with local authorities. The agency will continue to monitor the situation and take appropriate action as warranted,” though no formal NHTSA probe has been launched.
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