Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fisker gets new CEO, and another hybrid on fire

By Paul A. Eisenstein, The Detroit Bureau
Even as an earlier fire remains under investigation, a second Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid has been involved in a serious fire – though the maker contends the latest blaze was not caused by the vehicle’s battery.

The latest fire effectively destroyed a Fisker Karma parked outside in Woodside, Calif., Friday. The owner was approaching the vehicle after shopping for groceries when he discovered the blaze, according to a report on

Meanwhile, the troubled California automaker announced on Tuesday that Tony Posawatz, a longtime auto executive, will be its new CEO.

Posawatz’s move to Fisker comes barely a month after he retired as chief of General Motors’ electric vehicle program. He replaces Tom LaSorda, the one-time Chrysler chief executive, who had spent less than a year as Fisker’s CEO.

The 52-year-old Posawatz brings to Fisker plenty of know-how and a solid reputation after 25 years with GM. But he lands at a company that is struggling to come up with the cash it needs to launch its second and perhaps most critical product line, the Atlantic.

For the near-term, Posawatz’s initial duties will be to help steer Fisker through a potential public relations minefield tripped off by a pair of unexplained fires involving two Karma plug-ins. The maker has dispatched “independent investigators” to see why one of the vehicles unexpectedly caught fire in a Northern California grocery store’s parking lot last Friday.

“The area of origin for the fire was determined to be outside the engine compartment,” the company said in a statement about the fire. “Evidence revealed thus far supports the fact that the ignition source was not the Lithium-ion battery pack, new technology components or unique exhaust routing.”

The blaze was the second involving a Karma this year – though the company has suggested the earlier fire may have been the result of arson or some other issue not caused by the Fisker vehicle.

With Fisker officials picking and choosing questions during the web session, Posawatz did not address the issue of the fires during his debut conference call.

The issue could blunt the maker’s efforts to raise the capital it needs to offset the loss of a federal loan. Earlier this year, Fisker announced it would be forced to delay by at least a year the launch of its second product line, the smaller Atlantic – which is expected to generate significantly greater sales than the $103,000 Karma.

Following word of the latest fire, Fisker announced it has hired independent investigators to try to determine the cause. But based on initial indications, the maker said it does not appear that the problem was caused by the battery pack. Photos from the scene show the damage was focused on the left front corner of the vehicle. Fisker’s lithium-ion battery pack runs down the center of the sports car.

Fisker also has independent investigators working to clarify what happened in the earlier Texas fire. Local authorities initially blamed the Karma’s batteries, but it subsequently was revealed that the lithium-ion pack was not seriously damaged and was likely not the cause. There have since been reports that there were pyrotechnics in the garage with some questions raised about whether the blaze was the result of arson.

Fisker claims it now has more than 1,000 Karmas in consumer hands. The vehicle launched well behind schedule, however, which was one of the reasons the federal government froze a loan that the automaker had hoped would allow it to finish development of the Atlantic and begin production at a former GM plant in Delaware.

Fisker has called a news conference for this morning to discuss the latest fire and the company’s evolving business strategy.

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