Friday, March 13, 2009

Late this year, a sporty plug-in hybrid luxury sports car is slated to go on sale in limited quantities. No, it’s not a Toyota or General Motors product, despite the fact that these giant carmakers have been spewing out tons of news releases about their next-generation green cars.

Toyota will only begin leasing a plug-in to a small number of customers, such as universities. GM’s Chevrolet Volt plug-in will be the first mass-produced plug-in on the market, but it won’t go on sale until late 2010.

Fisker Automotive Inc., a small start-up company based in Irvine, Calif., seeks to beat its giant competitors to the showroom with the 2010 Karma, a premium green automobile. Henrik Fisker, chief executive of the new company, has devised a unique business plan to achieve this goal - he will outsource virtually all manufacturing and assembly to hold down costs and save time to market.

Formerly a top designer for BMW, Ford and Aston Martin, Mr. Fisker’s company will outsource all parts of the vehicle to suppliers, along with final assembly. Valmet Automotive will assemble and paint completed vehicles after a complex series of supplies wend their way to a factory in Uusikaupunki, on the southwest coast of Finland.

Valmet is winding down production of Porsche Boxster and Cayman models. When it shuts down the Porsche line in November, it will begin building the Fiskers and ship them to the United States. Later, Mr. Fisker will also sell its plug-in vehicles in Europe.

Eventually, Mr. Fisker plans to build, or refurbish, a plant in the United States to build vehicles. Cost and speed of initial assembly dictated retention of a turnkey assembly option for the introduction of the vehicle.

Body panels will be sourced from various North American suppliers and shipped to Valmet for paint and assembly. The powertrain consists of more than 2000 lithium-ion cells manufactured in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is then shipped to Singapore for installation in battery packs. The packs are in turn shipped to Finland.

A General Motors 2.0L direct injection turbocharged gasoline engine that is built in Spring Hill, Tenn., is being purchased and also shipped to Finland. This engine will lengthen the cruising range of the Fisker car to 350 miles. The vehicle’s range is limited to 50 miles on battery power alone. Top speed of the Fisker plug-in hybrid is claimed to be 125 mph.

Mr. Fisker says the first production vehicles will arrive from Finland late this year and go on sale by December. He forecasts 7,500 sales next year and sees that doubling to 15,000 units by 2011 when a convertible will be added to the portfolio.

Vic Doolan, a member of the Fisker board of directors and former head of BMW of North America, is currently head of Mr. Fisker’s retail operations. Mr. Doolan, who was a former president of Volvo Cars of North America, has signed up 26 dealers so far. The dealers have taken 1,300 orders from motorists who want to be among the first to own this new breed of hybrid vehicle.

Mr. Fisker forecasts the average transaction price of his first model will be about $90,000. The federal government offers a $7,500 tax rebate to buyers of hybrid cars. That will help to lower the price of the vehicle. However, it’s expected that most people who purchase plug-in hybrids will do so for altruistic purposes - mainly, to lower their carbon footprints.

How much actual carbon dioxide savings each customer will achieve depends on the carbon footprint of the utility used to recharge the hybrid and how much gasoline Fisker owners purchase. For motorists who travel less than 50 miles per day, there will be few trips to gas stations. Most of the vehicle’s power will be generated by the electric grid.

That could result in a huge reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions if the utility gets its power from hydroelectric or nuclear sources. But utilities that rely on coal-fired generators could contribute a very high level of carbon dioxide emissions.

Fisker Automotive Inc., which is privately owned, was founded in 2007 by Fisker Coachbuild LLC and Quantum Technologies. It has already achieved considerable notoriety. The company was embroiled in a lawsuit with Tesla Motors, a competitor for which Mr. Fisker worked as a designer before leaving to start his own company.

A California judge ordered Tesla to reimburse Mr. Fisker for legal costs to settle the lawsuit. In the lawsuit, Tesla claimed Mr. Fisker compromised its intellectual property. Mr. Fisker formerly was a designer of an early version of the Tesla plug-in hybrid two-seater. Tesla abandoned the Danish-born Mr. Fisker’s design and created an all-new version of its plug-in hybrid that will eventually compete with the Fisker model.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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