Congress is trying answer some important questions today about whether the government made mistakes in handling a loan to Fisker Automotive, a company that’s now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy—the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is holding a hearing on the subject. But when looked at from the perspective of innovation, Fisker doesn’t really matter much.
The company didn’t really develop any new technology. The company produced, for a while, a plug-in hybrid luxury sports sedan called the Karma (it sold about 2,000 of them). One way it could have contributed to pushing forward technology is to have been the first to demonstrate that plug-in hybrids– cars that run on both a battery that’s recharged by plugging it in and an gasoline engine that extends it range–could work. But it wasn’t the first. When it was founded, GM was well on its way to producing the Volt, a plug-in hybrid that’s much less expensive—and more efficient—than the Karma. And GM started selling the Volt before Fisker came to market. BYD, the Chinese automaker, was also an early plug-in hybrid developer. And hobbyists and startups have been converting conventional hybrids into plug-in hybrids that rely more on battery power for many years.
Fisker also didn’t substantially improve plug-in hybrids. It got its electric motor, engine, battery, and the system for tying them all together from suppliers. And the way it integrated these technologies didn’t greatly advance plug-in hybrids. While Apple has excelled at pulling together existing technology to make products that do something that others can’t—or do it better than others have—Fisker’s car, by many accounts, just doesn’t work that well. Reviewers have said it’s heavy, sluggish, inefficient, and cramped.
Fisker’s lack of innovation is part of the reason for its troubles (see “Why Tesla Survived and Fisker Won’t”). For more on Fisker, there have been several accounts about what went wrong (see, for example, the takes on Fisker here, here, and here).