After reports of a Fisker Karma going up in flames in Woodside, California last Friday, we published comments that EV expert Jon Bereisa had made about an earlier Karma fire. Bereisa had said that the tight packaging of the engine and putting the entire exhaust system under the hood and exiting out behind the front wheels compromised the heat shielding. Putting that together with photos and video of the latest fire, that showed the firefighters concentrating their water spray behind the front wheel, I speculated that Bereisa’s criticism was warranted. Now Fisker has issued a statement, specifically absolving the engine compartment and “unique exhaust routing” of involvement in the Woodside fire:
“Evidence revealed thus far supports the fact that the ignition source was not the Lithium-ion battery pack, new technology components or unique exhaust routing. The area of origin for the fire was determined to be outside the engine compartment. There was no damage to the passenger compartment and there were no injuries. Continued investigative efforts will be primarily focused within the specific area of origin, located forward of the driver’s side front tire.”‘
Well, if the exhaust system wasn’t the source of the fire and if it started outside the engine compartment and instead the origin was “forward of the driver’s side front tire”, what does that leave? Well, forward of the driver’s side front tire in most cars is the wiring for the left headlamp cluster. Headlights draw enough current requiring relays, not simple switches, to be used for electrical safety, but their wiring is proven and reliable. Looking at published photos of the fire’s aftermath, though, in the Karma’s right front there’s also some kind of heat exchanger that I believe, from its size, is the turbo’s intercooler. There also appears to be a sensor on the heat exchanger with some wires hanging out of it though that may not be the sensor’s original location.
Heat exchangers do, after all, get hot but I don’t think there’s any record of hot intercoolers or their leaking coolant causing fires. BMW, though, has issued a series of recalls for MINIs, BMWs and Rolls-Royces over fire hazards caused by electronics associated with those cars’ turbochargers. The burned Karma’s owner, Rusty Burger, told Eric Wessof of GreenTechMedia, who just happened by, that the car was smoking as he pulled into the parking lot. That sounds like a wiring malfunction.
Fire is a primal fear to most people. Electricity probably comes in close behind for a good deal of the population as well. The attention given to the as yet statistically insignificant fires involving electric cars is ample evidence of those fears. Part of the challenge that EV makers face is assuring people that all the volts and amps that power their cars are harnessed safely. They also have to educate emergency first responders on how to work around EVs’ high voltage systems. As probable as it is, it would be ironic if one of the Karma’s low voltage systems ended up being the cause. In part because of $190 million in US government backed loans that Fisker has already borrowed, the Karma has its critics. Those critics might also say that if Fisker can’t design low voltage systems to operate safely, it doesn’t bode well for the reliability of its electric drive.
I could be wrong, and the Karma was a victim of arson.