Freedom to Design: Q&A with Henrik Fisker, CEO of Fisker Automotive

Henrik Fisker with the Karma
(Courtesy Fisker Automotive)

“You always have to stimulate the senses,” says Danish-born Art Center College of Design alum Henrik Fisker, of creative inspiration. The designer of sport cars, among them two James Bond automobiles (BMW Z8 roadster and Aston Martin V8 Vantage), speaks with the structural air of Corbusier about concerning his work with timelessness. He emphasizes the need to balance his design with engineering, aesthetics, speed – and the environment.

Fisker believes in a future of zero-emission mobility. The only question he asks is, “How fast is it going to happen? Somebody has to go out there and take the first steps, and you know Fisker Automotive is one of them.”

 

As the newest American carmaker he created and debuted the word’s first extended range, electric sports sedan in 2008, the Fisker Karma. He founded the race for major carmakers entering the “premium electric” car market.

Karma’s contours span the width of a BMW 7-series, and the height of a Porsche 911. Red-carpet ready, it wears a dramatically long hood (emphasized by the long dash-to-axle ratio, running front wheel to a-pillar), the iconic “mustache” grille, and the world’s largest roof-mounted solar panel. At 5,300 pounds, it’s charged with two electric motors (albeit at depletion of power, motors are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged petrol generator).

Fisker has rolled out a limited supply of around 2,000 Karmas since beginning production in 2011, and halted them in November 2012. The car’s bloodline and battery supplier suffered bankruptcy, forcing Fisker to wait for a Chinese-based auto-parts manufacturer to breathe life back into A123 Systems to resume production.

The Karma remains a rare celebrity, with elasticity to reach future generations in the same way Fisker’s favorite classics, the Jaguar E-Type and Ferrari 250 GTO, resonate. One belongs to the collection, remarkably, of Saudi Arabia’s environmental minister.

Upon his return from India, ARTINFO caught up with Fisker in a  phone interview. Katya Valevich spoke with him about his creative vision and how a design like the Karma sped right out of his sketchbook in the direction of making history.

Was it when you were creative director of BMW’s DesignWorks USA that you knew you wanted to create your own car company?

No, the thought of actually starting a real car company, producing thousands of cars from the ground up, happened after I left the big car companies.

When I was at BMW and Aston Martin, I realized how difficult, and how many resources it takes to create a car – let alone a car company. I decided to leave Aston Martin because I wanted to try out more freedom in terms of design, doing even different designs than just cars. Together with Bernard Koehler, we started Fisker Coachbuild.

Two years later, coincidentally, I saw the drivetrain of electric vehicle extended range. I really thought there is something here [to] create a new car company, because we’re not just making a new car, we’re making a whole new concept of a car. That led me into thinking: so if we really are doing a whole new car company, with this new technology, I want to see if I can design the most beautiful four-door car ever done. I thought this would really be great. There are some people out there [for whom] beauty is number one, and they’re wiling to sacrifice a little bit on the few sensible items.

What is your philosophy?

Capture the time that you’re in, but also, timelessness. It’s about finding the pure essence of what you’re trying to say, and balancing product design with usability. For me, the biggest difference between art and a product is, you can really allow yourself to explore anything with any form and usability [in art]. A painting doesn’t have to have a real usability other than you looking at it. Obviously, a car, an engine, or battery has to fit people’s needs.

What marks the achievement of a good car design?

If you can design a car in a way that the consumer doesn’t feel that you have compromised. So for instance the Fisker Karma has all the safety and aerodynamics and everything else it needs to have – but it’s not obvious. Whereas other cars, you look at them and go “wow, were they shaped in an aerodynamic tunnel?”

What was the first stage, or your “blank canvas” for the Fisker Karma?

The blank canvas was a blank canvas. It was a sketch pad, starting with a ball point pen, putting a little bit of marker on it. I like to come up first of all with a free idea, thinking about, and obviously understanding what is necessary for it to become a car.

What is required of a design to get the car to production?

It’s really the balance between engineering and design you have to find. The more designers understand rules and regulations, the better they’re able to create this balance. Sometimes you’ll see designers making very “free-stroke cars,” as we call them. Later it’s impossible to make a beautiful car of it because they’ve wandered too far away from… not reality, but too far away from what engineering will be capable of actually making real and putting into production.

The next stage is “sculpting” the clay model. Can you walk us through this process?

As you move to the more technical drawing, you start a clay model to do the sculpture. You start working with and challenging the engineering team to make sure we can create the most beautiful shape without having too many compromises.

We probably spend about three to four months on the initial clay model, then another year doing very fine adjustments. So the first three to four months you can move several inches of clay, to really get everything right; and the next year, you mostly spend time moving millimeters, because that’s when you start discussing with engineers whether the front overhang needs to be 4 mm longer to fulfill the crash standards, or whether the roof needs to be 3 mm higher to get a little bit more headroom, or [fit] the headswing. There are so many rules and regulations, and engineering challenges you have to create. But the idea is that the initial design is very close, so you’re able to fulfill those restrictions without impact on the design.

What is the essence of Karma’s extended range technology?

I believe you could get people into cars which are beautiful, stimulate the senses – you know in terms of excitement, visually, everything else – and you don’t make the compromise in terms of range. The essence for me of a car is about freedom of mobility, going wherever you want, whenever you want, and an electric car always limits that ability. [With Karma] people can drive electric during an entire week, but there’s no range anxiety. I think that’s very important.

How does the Karma drive the future for environmentally sustainable luxury?

Where [Fisker is] important, is we can set ourselves apart and entice people. People are starting to think about our future, the environment, and about what they can do. You start thinking about what brands fit your lifestyle. The Fisker Automotive brand fits people’s lifestyle if they want to show that they want to be part of an environmentally friendly future.

If they’re in the price class of Fisker, people have the opportunity to take part in the future already. They don’t have to wait, and they don't have to sacrifice. Beyond the drivetrain, we went out to our suppliers and made sure that they were the most sustainable suppliers that we could work with.

What is next in line after the Karma, and will it be in a lower price segment?

We’re definitely moving the technology into more hands of the people of the future. Our next project, which we have designed about 90% and only shown a few pictures, will be a 4-door sports sedan, in a much lower price segment, and much higher volume [than the Karma]. We are obviously not looking into becoming a competitor with Toyota or KIA – we are a premium car company – but we are working on a car in a lower price segment, in the segment of the Audi A5 to give you an example.

No doubt environmental consciousness is changing luxury lifestyles outside the U.S. What are you doing to reach those markets?

The big challenge for all industrial newcomers in the world [is] they accelerate much faster than America and Europe have done. They have to skip some of the things that Europe and the U.S. have gone through. They will jump straight to the new technologies.

There’s no reason why China and India should go through decades of driving around in polluted cars. We’re gonna see a big movement [toward electric] because of pollution problems, and the Chinese government had said they want to see electric cars on the road, so I think we’re gonna have big success in China. I think India in the future as well. We just launched in Dubai [where] we have several people ordering the car. I think it’s taken on in the Middle East.

I think specifically when you look at the premium segment in those countries, I can imagine that [through] advantageous taxation, these countries will encourage the wealthier part of the population to jump straight into environmental friendly vehicles, instead of driving the old fashioned cars.

Which of the Karma’s design elements will we see in future models?

I want to try and see if I can create a design heritage and a family look for Fisker Automotive without necessarily all the cars looking the same. We definitely have the grille, a very strong part of Fisker, and it’s generally the sculpture and the very dynamic proportions, specifically with the long dash-to-axle ratio. I think [a long hood] gives it proportionally a more beautiful look.

Think about the Jaguar E-type: one of the reasons it’s so beautiful is that long hood, an element that I feel, when you look at the historic cars, we have lost today. A lot of cars have similar proportions. I’m trying to set Fisker Automotive apart from all other cars by having unique proportions, and that will carry through to the Atlantic, and any other vehicle we’ll do.