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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Michigan Gets the Fisker


Times are tough in Motor City these days, but Michigan got some good news this week with the announcement that Fisker Automotive will put as many as 200 engineers and designers to work on the ultra-luxury Karma plug-in hybrid at a new R&D center in Pontiac.

The company says it will open a 34,000-square-foot "engineering and development center" to push the $80,000 Karma into production by the end of next year. The upstart firm led by car designer extraordinaire Henrik Fisker had long been interested in setting up shop in the Detroit area, and with the Big Three laying off workers, he it should have no trouble finding a building to occupy and a staff to fill it.

"The available talent, supplier base and infrastructure in Michigan will help us reach our production goal," company COO Bernhard Koehler said in a statement. "While Fisker Automotive will continue to be headquartered in Irvine, California, the new facility will allow us the opportunity to collaborate with our Michigan supplier base and have everyone under one roof."

That's all well and good, and the announcement suggests things are moving right along at a company that's had a run of good news lately. But you've gotta wonder if it isn't also an opportunity for Fisker to thumb his nose at his arch-rival Tesla Motors, which recently announced layoffs, is closing its Detroit design center and just lost its lawsuit against Fisker Automotive.

There's no love lost between the two upstart automakers, both of which have drop-dead gorgeous cars with stratospheric price tags. While Fisker believes plug-in hybrids are the best alternative to petroleum, Tesla's betting full-electric vehicles are the future.

Of the two, Tesla's been way out in front, having actually put about 50 Roadsters in driveways after overcoming delays caused by transmission problems. All we've seen from Fisker is a sexy prototype, a few fake spy shots and a video of the car tooling around a runway. Fisker tells us he's on track to have "about 100" Karmas in driveways by the end of 2009. Most experts we've talked to say that's an exceedingly optimistic timeline -- and one that was laid out long before the auto industry imploded.

But Tesla's stumbled along with the economy. It is cutting about a quarter of its staff and delaying production of "Model S," an electric sedan it hoped to roll out in 2010. The belt-tightening came after Tesla couldn't close a $100-million round of funding - although it has since lined up $40 million in convertible debt financing and is proceeding with plans for a factory in San Jose.

Fisker, on the other hand, is on a roll lately. The company is backed by venture capital powerhouse Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers and closed a $65-million round of funding in September. It has less overhead than Tesla because it has farmed out a lot of the engineering to Quantum Technologies and lined up the Finnish firm that assembles the Porsche Cayman and Boxster to build the Karma. The company got another boost last week when an arbitrator essentially tossed out Tesla's lawsuit accusing Henrik Fisker of stealing company secrets. Tesla claimed Fisker signed a contract to design the Model S so he could crib from Tesla's proprietary information while developing the Karma. The arbitrator found "the evidence is overwhelming that Fisker did nothing wrong" and Tesla's allegations were "baseless."

Fisker was quick to issue a press release letting everyone know the case had gone his way. Now he's issued another to say he's moving to Michigan -- just as Tesla's moving out. Fisker has reason to crow, but until he's actually started putting cars in driveways, it's all just talk.

Post updated 10:40 p.m. PST.

Image by Fisker Automotive.