By on May 11, 2012

Fisker Karma - Fisker Motors Photo

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.

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 dig deeper 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


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22 Comments on “Fisker Karma Fire Investigation Continues, EV Expert Blames Engine Packaging & Heat – Not Batteries...”

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    IMHO, pretty inept way of handling a public relations issue by Fisker. First of all, you don’t blame your customer for “malicious intent” unless you have proof beyond reasoneable doubt to do so.

    That could scare off more potential Fisker customers than the fire itself.

    I understand that Fisker desperately wants to avoid “accepting fault” until a full investigation is complete. However, the poor Karma owner not only hast lost three vehicles, but his home may be unhabitable for a while, and his and family’s life has been disrupted and is now in the national spotlight.

    • 0 avatar

      Fisker obviously never learned anything from the Tylenol scare of the 1970s, which has become the template for handling product defects.

      They are definitely not in the position of Toyota, which was able to vigorously defend itself against accusations of UA – and which many consumers figured was partially within the control of the driver, anyway.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      “That could scare off more potential Fisker customers than the fire itself.”

      It really won’t be a problem.

  • avatar

    Isn’t that an Ecotec engine made by GM ?

  • avatar

    Rut roh.

  • avatar

    These EVs should be sold as kit cars that force the buyer to assemble them. Then the manufacturer can always point to the molten hulk and say “well duh.. we said to tighten that bolt to 42 ft-lbs, not 43!. Look it’s right here in Appendix 6A, page 4001 of the assembly guide.

    Just a fad folks.. Next week people with way too much money will be paying $100,000 for something else that doesn’t do much.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    It’s always a good idea when facing one potential lawsuit — for product liability — to add in another one: for defamation (libel). I mean, you can probably defend two of them together for less than twice the cost of defending one lawsuit alone.

    And make no mistake: Mr. Gutierrez will file a fat claim against his insurance company (and his policy limits are probably very high) and the insurance company isn’t going to be sentimental about shifting that cost to Fisker, if it has a shot at doing so.

    Maybe the sales contract for the next model Fisker should include a limitation of liability clause protecting the company from multimillion dollar claims.

  • avatar

    Once again, the simple, EV-only, air-cooled approach used in the Leaf looks more attractive than these complex water-cooled EV/ICE combos.

  • avatar

    When did car companies start sending their own SWAT members when your car acts up?

    Aside from the Fiskers bad design, I wouldn’t want one if its able to burn up and the company would kick me out of my house.

  • avatar

    When asked about Bereisa’s theories, the spokesman said, “The Karma has been through all regulatory and certification checks.”

    Now that’s comforting.

  • avatar

    Saw it on the local news – the Fisker guys put up 8′ chain link with blue tarps around the garage and part of the house. When the news helicopter flew over, they grabbed more tarps and covered the car.

  • avatar

    Karma is a bitch.

  • avatar

    Heat packaging around the engine. Interesting, I can see how that can be a problem. I’ve not seen the engine close up. I’d be curious to see what it looks like myself.

  • avatar

    Add Fisker to the crap heap of green companies the goverment poured billions into without any measurable return.

    Maybe we can slip Fisker a few more million/billion (those numbers are interchangable to our political “leaders”) to deal with the lawsuits that will emerge from this ill-conceived turd of a car.

    But… but no innovation ever happens without government investment, you say, sputtering pointing out how government spending brought us all the wonders we enjoy in our modern world.

    Give me a break, so far all of these electric car ventures have been a collossal waste of money for all those involved, and the taxpayers don’t deserve to be shafted for this joke of a company.

    • 0 avatar

      Most of the wonders we enjoy in our modern world that can indeed be traced to government funding (eg. integrated circuits, computers, GPS, the internet) were spinoffs from a legitimate role of the federal US government – national defense, not the gov’t playing venture capitalist. In almost every one of those technologies, rather than picking winners and losers, there were bid processes with companies actually competing.

  • avatar
    George B

    Government funding paying salaries combined with creative people recognizing potential spinoffs. Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit while his boss was away on vacation. He was supposed to be working on the Micro Module program for the Army, but with insufficient supervision he came up with something better. TI and Kilby designed the pocket calculator as a demo product to promote civilian use of the integrated circuit.

  • avatar

    I haven’t quite figured this one out. He has an older Merc SUV parked inside along with another car. He parts the 100k car outside. Fisker never really blamed him pint blank, you could take that as someone else tampering with the car. It did say in another article that fireworks were in the garage and stored in the Fisker. And this is the first one to catch on fire. What did they expect? Of course the SWAT team is gonna be there. Trying to find out what happened so they can recall cars if there’s a problem. I think he bought it, flamed it because his old lady was ill about him buying it. And shame on Fisker for putting a GM crappy engine in it.

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