Fisker's 48-Hour Fix

By Bill Moore

Posted: 04 Jan 2012

If you were to judge the situation by the screaming -- and pretty much misleading -- headlines, Fisker's Karma luxury plug-in hybrid is a ticking time bomb that could explode at any minute, its lithium battery pack spontaneously combusting into a volcanic eruption of molten metal, taking it and its owner or their garage and home with it.

Actually, the real situation isn't anywhere remotely like that.

In case you missed this over the holidays, Fisker voluntarily recalled some 297 Karmas, about 50 in owner hands, the rest in dealer showrooms or being readied for shipment from the Valmet assembly plant in Finland. The reason for the recall is a coolant clamp that had been improperly installed during the manufacture of the battery pack by A123 Systems. The risk was that a leak could drain coolant from the pack, enabling it to overheat and possibly start a fire.

$1 coolant clamp

On January 2, less than two weeks after the problem was detected, Fisker issued an announcement that virtually all of the cars in owner hands had had brand new batteries installed or were on the schedule to be installed. The dealer cars and those in the pipeline had all be repaired. The issue was no longer an issue.

But the media has been very slow to catch on, leaving the distinct impression as of yesterday, that this is yet another example that electric cars aren't ready for prime time; that the Karma, like the Volt, is a fire-prone vehicle. And for those with a political axe to grind, its just another example of the ineptitude and cronyism of the Obama Administration. One headline even labeled the car the Gore-mobile, presumably because former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is supposed to have some money invested in Fisker or one of Fisker's backers.

Given the fact that the media sharks are thrashing about in the water looking for more blood, I decided to give Roger Ormisher at Fisker a call to find out what the story really is. Here's what I learned.

The Wednesday before Christmas, workers on the Karma assembly line noticed that when they powered up two of the cars, there was a very small leak that appeared, which Ormisher described as a fine mist. A closer inspection of the cars revealed that one of the $1 clamps that connects the car's battery coolant system to the battery pack has installed improperly. Valmet called Fisker and they, in turn, called A123 Systems, the battery pack maker.

By the Friday before Christmas, the problem had been identified and the solution found: turn the clamp around to the correct position and retighten it. In the meantime, Fisker dutifully notified NHTSA -- the same agency that discovered the problem with the Volt pack -- of their decision to initiate a voluntarily recall of all the cars. Fisker and its 48 dealers began contacting the 50 customers who had taken delivery.

Fisker decided for the sake of customer convenience and its reputation that it would completely replace the battery pack with brand new ones shipped directly from A123 to the dealerships. Ormisher explained that while it was more expensive to do this than having to dismantle the pack to reposition to clamp, it would take less time. The owners could bring the car in in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon.

By the day after New Years 2012, nearly all of the cars had been repaired or had new packs installed. Unfortunately for Fisker, it takes about a week for NHTSA to post the recall notice on its web site, and this is where most of the media learned about the problem, which was already well on its way to being resolved. By the time Google indexed all those screaming headlines about recalls and fires, the problem had pretty much been solved.

I asked Ormisher how many of the cars they'd built had caught fire, burning down their owner's homes?

He chuckled and replied, "None." In fact, not one of the owners had even reported the leak, much less any fires. He pointed out to me that in preparation for both North American and European certification, the company had crashed 30 cars. Not one of those cars has since caught fire months after those tests.

The Karma may be heavy (and from a safety perspective, that might not be all bad) and it definitely is expensive, but what it is not is fire-prone. More importantly, Fisker has demonstrated that it not only can respond in a prompt and prudent manner, but it's willing to do the right thing by its customers; something GM's management also has, in my view, demonstrated in its handling of the Volt fire investigation. And as Ormisher pointed out, it's a good thing they caught the problem with only 300 cars to deal with and not three million, like the big carmakers.

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