Given the hurricane of bad publicity for the Chevrolet Volt last year over a battery-pack fire (in a crash-testing vehicle, a week after it was wrecked), any fire at all in a plug-in car is one too many.
So the occurrence of a second fire among only 1,000 Fisker Karma range-extended electric luxury sedans, first reported by Jalopnik on Friday evening, is doubly troubling.
It follows a May blaze in a Fisker in Sugar Land, Texas (near Houston Dallas) that destroyed the car and damaged its garage and the house it was attached to.
The owner of a 2012 Fisker Karma had parked it outside a grocery store in tony Woodside, California, where some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest residents live.
When the owner emerged with his groceries, smoke was pouring from the car. He called Fisker, which told him to call 911, which he did.
By the time the blaze was extinguished by fire crews, much of the car in front of the windshield had been destroyed.
Video shot by bystander Aaron Wood--you can view it here or watch it above--shows the front of the car with flames coming from around the left front wheel area, followed by a firefighter spraying the burning electric car with water.
The exhaust pipes of the Karma's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine exit through small grilles mounted under both front fenders, just ahead of the doors--not at the rear as in most other production cars.
In the case of the Fisker fire in Texas, Robert Baker, who is the Fort Bend, Texas, determined that the blaze started in the car, which was at fault.
Fisker subsequently traded accusations with independent analyst Jon Bereisa, who told Automotive News reporter Mark Rechtin that he had been "alarmed" by the Karma's tight component packaging in the engine compartment.
2012 Fisker Karma EcoSport
Bereisa, a noted member of the EV1 electric-car development team and now CEO of consultant Auto Lectrification, said the arrangement of the under-hood components left very little room for airflow and heat shielding around the engine's exhaust system.
And, he suggested, it was possible that fluid leaking on or near the exhaust--whether coolant, gasoline, or even brake fluid--might be ignited by the heat.
Little further has been heard about the causes of the first fire, though Fisker sent a "SWAT team" of its own analysts, in the words of owner Jeremy Guttierez. His attorney sent a statement on the incident to AutoWeek magazine, which published it in full.
In December, 239 Fisker Karmas were recalled to fix misaligned hose clamps in the battery cooling system. The recall notice issued by the NHTSA noted possible consequences of a leak: "If coolant enters the battery compartment, an electrical short could occur--possibly resulting in a fire."
As for the Woodside fire, Fisker Automotive released a statement on Saturday, saying that "safety remains our primary concern" and that damage appeared to be "confined to the driver's side front corner" of the car, away from the lithium-ion battery pack.
2012 Fisker Karma during road test, Los Angeles, Feb 2012
A123 Systems, maker of the lithium-ion cells used in the Karma's battery pack, had to recall cells built at a Michigan plant in March, requiring battery packs in hundreds of Karmas to be replaced.
(On Wednesday, A123 announced a financial rescue plan backed by a Chinese Investor, which would own 80 percent of the company.)
The new fire is likely to cast fresh doubt on Fisker Automotive, whose undeniably sexy plug-in four-door is rated at a mere 20 mpg by the EPA in range-extending mode, making it the lowest-efficiency electric vehicle sold in the U.S. today.
In early 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy suspended further cash from but $529 million in low-interest loans granted to Fisker after the company failed to meet repeated deadlines. In April, it hired a restructuring advisor to monitor its Fisker investment.
The company said it was investigating the Woodside incident and would have no comment on any causes until its investigation was complete.
It also said that it did not "believe that there is any link between" the two Karma fires in Woodside and Sugar Land but that it "can’t be certain until our investigations are complete."
We've copied Fisker's full statement on the second page of this article.
Woodside CA Incident Messaging
August 11, 2012
Fisker Automotive can confirm that one of its Karma models was involved in a vehicle fire during a roadside incident in Woodside, California. No injuries were reported; the vehicle was parked; and the fire was extinguished safely by the emergency services. Fisker understands damage was limited to the driver’s side front corner of the car, away from the lithium ion battery and electric motors. The car was not being charged at the time.
We have more than 1,000 Karmas on the road with a cumulative 2 million miles on them. There are more than 185,000 highway vehicle fires in the US every year. In an electric vehicle, immediate suspicion is focused on the battery and high voltage components. The location of the damage to the vehicle in this incident appears to rule out that suspicion. Fisker has not had any battery or high voltage fire incidents with any of its vehicles.
Safety remains our primary concern at Fisker, and is integral to the design, engineering and technology of the Karma, a model in which we have absolute confidence. Fisker staff have been in contact with the customer and are investigating the cause of this incident. We are also employing an independent fire expert to assist the investigation. A further statement will be issued once the investigation has been completed and the cause determined.
Q: What was the cause of the fire in the car in Woodside?
A: We are currently investigating the cause. Unofficial photos show the damage was limited to the front corner, away from the lithium ion battery. The car was not being charged at the time
Q: What were the circumstances surrounding the fire?
A: Details are still forthcoming so we will hold comment until our inquiry is complete.
Q: Is this related to the Texas incident?
A: The Texas incident was a garage fire with many complicating factors and, to date, no known cause. We do not believe that there is any link between the incidents but can’t be certain until our investigations are complete.
Q: Was it related to the high voltage battery?
A: Due to the apparent location of the fire in the front of the car where there are no high-voltage components, and the fact that the car was not charging, we are confident it was not.
Q: What does this mean for the company? Can you survive?
A: This is another challenge that we will overcome with our customary speed and focus on customer satisfaction.
Q: Is the car safe to drive?
A: We have confidence in the Fisker Karma. Safety is our primary concern and if, after a thorough investigation, we determine that there is an issue with the car we will swiftly take the appropriate steps to notify all customers.