Carl Jenkins just wanted to go for a drive. The San Bernardino Mountains promised stunning alpine vistas and breathtaking views of reservoirs and lakes, and weren’t too far from his Southern California home. So on a nice Saturday afternoon in July of 2015, Jenkins and his wife set out in his new hybrid electric Fisker Karma.
They made it three miles up the canyon road before the dreaded dashboard lights blinked on: The car had overheated. I ended up with a classic picture of my wife standing next to this gorgeous car, in gorgeous scenery, with the hood up and coolant just pouring out of it, Jenkins says.
Back at work Monday morning, Jenkins got right to griping, like youd expect from someone whod lost a nice weekend to a shoddy product. But he wasnt moaning to a sympathetic cubicle mate. Jenkins leads the engineering efforts at Karma Automotive.
You might remember Fisker. The company had once threatened to upend Detroit with a sleek, eco-minded sports car—and then crashed in a blaze of mismanagement and bad luck. Jenkins was supposed to resurrect its only product, the Karma.
That drive on the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, during his first weekend at the company, crystalized just how difficult it would be. He called in the thermal team for a blunt conversation—one of many.
Three weeks after the weekend jaunt, the thermal folks had reworked the airflow through the front of the car, a simple fix the original engineers had overlooked as they raced to market in 2011. But it was just one of hundreds of issues Jenkins and his teams had to identify.
Today, they think theyve rectified all of them, and Jenkins and the other 600 members of the new Fisker team are ready to relaunch one of the most famous failures in the history of the auto industry. “I specifically wanted to do a 1,000-piece jigsaw, with lots of clouds and gray skies,” Jenkins says. Now hes getting his chance.
A New Kind of Electric
In 2008, environmental consciousness was hip, but electric cars were somewhere between lame and nonexistent. For A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, the apex of greenness was, if you can believe it, the egg-shaped Toyota Prius.
Henrik Fisker thought things could be different. The Danish designer had made his name with some of the loveliest cars of the past quarter century, including the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9. In 2007, he went solo with a plan to bring luxury and style to the world of EVs, and charge a premium for it. Fisker snagged some VC cash and founded Fisker Automotive in Irvine, California.
They launched the vehicle a year too soon. They didnt finish the program.Carl Jenkins, lead engineer at Karma Automotive
The next year he unveiled the Karma. Like Chevy Volt of the same era, it had a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, powered by electricity until the battery went flat, then using a gas engine as a generator so youd never be stranded. Unlike the Volt, it was freaking gorgeous, with curves that made it look like it was formed from a single piece of gently melted metal, and could pull zero to 60 in as little as 5.9 seconds.
As the American auto industry crumbled, Fisker offered a new way. Forbes put him on its cover under the headline, The Next Detroit. The US Department of Energy promised $528.7 million.
Fisker pledged to start production within 18 months. And while he would begin with the luxury market, he wanted to build affordable electric cars for the masses within a few years—the same thing Elon Musk was trying to do with Tesla Motors.