The Department of Energy today is auctioning off the paper for the $192 million it loaned to Fisker Automotive as part of the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program. An obvious question is why would anyone want to buy that debt? Many of the press reports about the sale say that by purchasing the debt, a buyer could ultimately gain control of Fisker’s assets including intellectual property, like the extended range hybrid drivetrain and controls thereof. While Fisker may indeed have assets with some value, I’m not sure that anyone’s going to spend at least $30 million, the minimum bid required by the DoE, to be able to duplicate the Fisker Karma’s drivetrain.
I can understand why Bob Lutz, either participating or not with Wanxiang, would want access to the Karma’s design as he’s apparently had no problem selling every LS9 powered Destino, based on the Karma, that he and his business partners have been able to build. Henrik Fisker is a talented designer so it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Fisker Karma survives the Fisker car company. The Karma could become a latter day Graham-Paige Hollywood or Nate Altman era Avanti II. For their part, Wanxiang might prefer that Fisker stays intact and resumes production. Wanxiang already bought battery maker A123, which supplied the Karma, so they have an interest in keeping the startup automaker alive.
It’s conceivably possible that if Fisker owned something novel in the way of electric drivetrains or control systems for EVs and hybrids, that might be a way of acquiring the latest EV or hybrid tech on the cheap. Control systems for hybrids are not inexpensive to develop. Seamlessly integrating gasoline engines and electric motors is not easy. At the recent Toyota Hybrid World Tour, the point was made that software was the most expensive part of the Prius’ development. For pure electric vehicles, motor control, regenerative systems and battery management all require complex software to operate properly. To save money on EV development, Toyota itself has a partnership with Tesla, who provide motors and battery packs for the electric version of the RAV4. Still, I have to wonder if Fisker Automotive owns any EV or hybrid technology that’s worth risking $30 million. That’s because Fisker doesn’t own the technology behind the Karma’s drivetrain.
Fisker itself doesn’t own much in the way of EV or hybrid technology. Fisker’s “Q-Drive” serial hybrid drivetrain was developed and exclusively supplied by Fisker partner Quantum Technologies. As a matter of fact, Fisker Automotive came into being as the result of a chance meeting at a Range Rover dealership between Henrik Fisker and Quantum Technologies CEO Alan Niedzwiecki, which led to a lunch for the two men in early 2007. General Motors had just announced the concept for the Chevy Volt, which for the most part operates as a serial hybrid, electric drive plus a range extending on-board gasoline engine to drive a generator to power the electric motors. Quantum had developed a similar drivetrain for the U.S. military. When Henrik Fisker told Niedzwiecki of his plans to design gasoline cars built in China, the Quantum CEO said, “Why don’t you design a car around my drivetrain?” Fisker responded by saying “Let’s start a company!”
Quantum was the exclusive supplier of the Karma’s drivetrain, which uses a GM sourced Ecotec four cylinder gasoline engine to power the car’s generator. A Quantum affiliate also supplied Fisker with the photovoltaic roof on the Karma, that kept the parked car ventilated on sunny days and theoretically could extend range on sunny days by a few miles.
As a result of all of this, it’s unlikely that anyone could put the Karma back into production without the active cooperation of Quantum. It’s also unlikely that anyone is going to risk $30 million to have access to technology that another company owns and controls.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS