Sun roof: An optional solar panel will generate enough electricity to cool the car when it’s parked in the sun. In the background is the new convertible plug-in hybrid from Fisker.
Fisker could have a narrow window of opportunity in which to establish itself, Omotoso says. GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and other major automakers have plans to produce plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles in the next few years that will likely be far less expensive than the Karma. Yet Fisker will have a few limited advantages in competing with the established automakers, Omotoso says. Unlike GM and Chrysler, it won’t be loaded down by legacy costs–overhead from large factories and bills for retiree pensions and health care, for example. It will also be able to draw on the same suppliers, so that as demand for GM plug-ins increases production and drives down costs for parts, those costs will also come down for Fisker. Eventually, the company intends to sell less expensive cars to a wider market. Last week, Henrik Fisker said that it may be possible to use very simple engines to recharge the battery and extend range. These could cost as little as $500, he said–far less than the $3,000 that a conventional engine can cost.
Fisker won’t be the first car maker to manufacture plug-in hybrids: a Chinese company called BYD, which is backed by Warren Buffett, is already producing plug-in hybrids in China. But Fisker will be the first to sell them in the United States. “With the first car that hits the market, people will judge the level of enthusiasm based on sales, and try to project from that what the future of these cars is,” says Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars and a plug-in hybrid advocate. “If they stumble, if they have quality problems or people are disappointed in the product, then it sets everyone back.” Omotoso expects that consumers will pay particularly close attention to whether the cars have the advertised range and to whether the lithium ion battery packs prove safe and reliable. “If the consumer gets spooked by safety issues, consumers might say, ‘Let’s just stick with [conventional] hybrids,’” such as the Toyota Prius, Omotoso says, especially since they’re cheaper than plug-in hybrids. “The plug-in market could be strangled at birth if there are significant problems with the Fisker [Karma],” he says.