By on August 14, 2012

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.

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10 Comments on “Fisker Says Latest Fire Not Caused By Battery, Engine or Exhaust – Which Leaves …...”


  • avatar
    NMGOM

    Ronnie,

    One of the problems with us scientist types is that we often look for the single cause that begets a single effect. Nice and neat. But that isn’t always fruitful for complex systems. Sometimes things act together interdependently to create disaster… a multivariate universe.

    Certainly a vehicle like the Karma is a very complex system. It is quite possible that several things could conspire to create a fire hazard, which, when tested separately, would not otherwise be a significant problem.

    That may be the case here. Poor wiring + poor shielding + hot exhaust routing + intercooler temperature = FIRE.

    (For example: Whenever I have had a car accident (their were 6 in my “career”), it was never due to just a single goof-up, a one-only misstep on my part or the other guy’s part: I always goofed in multiple ways, or he did, or both.)

    ————–

  • avatar
    dejal1

    Did they find any human remains?

    http://theshadowlands.net/spon.htm

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    If Fisker was really interested in energy efficiency, it would have on-board fire suppression system for the left-front fender, (maybe the right side too) to avoid those gas-hog fire trucks coming to the scene.

    But, alas, just a simple wiring fire, as told in this centimeter by centimeter press release. Not big deal, right? Unless your “Fisker” is in your garage at 3:00 AM. Well, hey, can’t the rich owners afford it?!

  • avatar
    gslippy

    This is merely speculation, fueled by Fisker’s defensiveness.

    This fire could be as hard to diagnose as the Toyota UA mystery, except in Fisker’s case, will probably do them great harm.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      Funny you should mention the Toyota uninteresting acceleration. At the time, I pointed.out that I’d had multiple stuck gas pedals in the Fords I’d owned (Tempo and Ranger at the time), but no flamethrower behavior with our Prius. Guess what – my 3rd Ford (an Escape) was just recalled for a serious sounding problem with the cruise control module. It was serious enough that Ford disabled the cruise control and then said they’d contact me when a real fix becomes available.

      So, golf scoring: Ford – 7+, Toyota 0. Toyota wins big

      (I probably had a half dozen stuck gas pedals in my Tempo before my idiotic 21 year old self figured out that the throttle cable was binding. I can afford much better maintenence now. I had one stuck gas pedal incident in the Ranger that was probably a floormat. No prohlems obserbed yet in my Escape. Zero problems with Toyota. Its amazing the media narrative can blow one thing out of proportion, and miss the exact same thing right down the street. At least the Blue Oval Boys are doing something about it, for a change – thank you Mulally.)

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Maybe their next press release should say that there is nothing to see here, there was no fire, move along. Anyone still thinking about buying a Karma will be happy to fall for it.

  • avatar
    savuporo

    >>Fire is a primal fear to most people. Electricity probably comes in close behind for a good deal of the population as well.

    I dont think “primal” is a word that can be used along with electricity. Unless cavemen really ran their Walkmans on Duracell.

    Generally, i get a sense that there is a fueled fear by a group of auto journalists in regards of electric powertrains, justified or not. Maybe they just stuck their fingers in the wall sockets too often as kids.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      I don’t how many amps come out of the battery pack but it’s probably a number that deserves some healthy respect.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        A standard 12V car battery can easily deliver over 1000 amps when shorted, and can turn an unprotected 12-18ga wire into a red-hot, glowing mass of copper in just a few seconds.

        There’s a great scene in one “Breaking Bad” episode where Walt gets his revenge on a jerkwad BMW driver at a gas station by opening the hood of the BMW and shorting across the battery terminals with a winshield squeege, causing a nice fire.

        Nobody is running around scared of the 12V battery in their car, which is easily able to start a vehicle fire (Google ‘Ford cruise control switch fire’ to see what I mean).

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Even lowly lead acid batteries are capable of huge bursts of current. I once designed an igniter circuit for carbon steel rods immeresed in an oxygen atmosphere. I measured over 3000 A over two seconds from a pair of six volt truck batteries wired in parallel. I had to use a water cooled resistor made of Inconel tube to throttle the current down to 1200 A. The switch for this think was a beauty to behold. Two six inch copper disks operated by an air cylinder.


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