Fisker Automotive Inc., a maker of luxury plug-in hybrid cars backed by U.S. government loans, is studying the cause of a California fire involving its $103,000 Karma sedan, the second such incident this year.
The fire occurred in Woodside, California, on Aug. 10, Roger Ormisher, a spokesman for the company, said in a phone interview yesterday. Fisker engineers are examining the car with investigators from Pacific Rim Investigative Services Group, a fire-analysis firm in Corona, California, he said.
The incident comes as Fisker works to improve its finances and sales after losing access last year to a portion of a $529 million low-interest loan awarded by the U.S. Energy Department in 2009. Fisker, co-founded by auto designer Henrik Fisker, in February stopped work at a Wilmington, Delaware, factory where it planned to build a second car model after being cut off from the funds.
“It looks as though the car may have been under-engineered,” said Jim Hall, a principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., a consulting firm in Birmingham, Michigan. “All vehicles are complicated but a plug-in like Karma, that combines an electric vehicle with a gasoline powertrain, is unusually challenging.”
A123 Systems Inc. said in March said it would replace flawed battery packs it supplied for Karmas that caused one of the vehicles to shut down during testing by Consumer Reports magazine this year.
The car’s lithium-ion battery and its “new technology components or unique exhaust routing” don’t appear to have caused the fire, based on an initial review, Anaheim, California-based Fisker said in an e-mailed statement. The cause of an earlier fire involving a Karma in Sugar Land, Texas, which is being investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hasn’t yet been identified.
NHTSA is aware of the California fire involving the Karma, said Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for the agency in Washington. NHTSA “will evaluate the available information to determine if there are safety implications that merit additional agency action,” she said yesterday in an e-mail.
Closely held Fisker has delivered more than 1,000 Karmas in the U.S. and Europe since December, and counts actor Leonardo DiCaprio as a customer and investor. The Karma is able to travel as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) on lithium-ion batteries before a gasoline engine is activated.
NHTSA in May held a forum on the safety of batteries in electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, almost a year after a General Motors Co. Chevrolet Volt caught fire after a government crash test.
The agency closed its investigation into that fire in January, after GM agreed to add battery-pack protection to Volts it had sold. Electric vehicles are no more prone to fires than other autos, NHTSA said.