Automotive designer and entrepreneur Henrik Fisker talks openly with Discover EV while sat inside the new Ocean at Goodwood Festival of Speed
One of the highlights of Goodwood Festival of Speed was getting the opportunity to interview Henrik Fisker and be one of just a select few to see inside their new Ocean prototype. With Henrik beside me in the passenger seat we chew the fat about his career, the upcoming Pear and Ronin, as well as the future of the car industry, and much more!
1.You began your career with BMW – how different were things then? Did you even envisage a future in electric motoring?
Well, I have to tell you, much to my dismay and disappointment, my first job at BMW when I arrived in 1989 was actually an electric car called the E1. A few years later I remember being at the Frankfurt Auto Show where it debuted and I remember I bought a new suit and tie and no one looked at the car, no one came by, no one was interested in electric cars! Fortunately I then started work on the X5 and Z8 so it was an amazing time at BMW and, in fact, I forgot about that electric car until many years later, so it’s funny to think that was my first project.
I went onto Aston Martin, as you know, and made a lot of sports cars, but the reason I went into the electric vehicle field was because I love cars and I can’t imagine a world without private mobility, and it’s clear if we don’t do something it will be either unaffordable or forbidden. We’re already starting to see some restrictions, so we have to find a way to make the automobile part of our future society and that means it has to be sustainable and clean. I wanted to make some really cool electric cars that we can live with and we can love. And with Fisker Inc and our company’s first EV, the Fisker Ocean, we believe we have taken things to the next level – especially in terms of Fisker’s aims to produce a climate neutral vehicle by 2027.
2. Having been a successful designer for major carmakers why did you go down the business route?
A desire to do things the way I want to and be more radical about it. You can’t as one single person turn around a giant car company – it’s very difficult and I just had that urge. I felt that career-wise – I’d done my dream job designing cars at Aston Martin – the Vantage especially, so the next step was to go out on my own and make a real difference.
3. So, you founded Fisker Automotive in 2007 and launched the Fisker Karma – one of the world's first production luxury plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and with a range of 50 miles. How did people react to that during a time when the Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF weren’t household names?
We launched the Karma a year before the Model S and it’s funny because a lot of people just loved to look at the car, they didn’t even plug it in - we had calls from owners asking how to charge it. We were probably just a little bit ahead of our time - we even used reclaimed wood from the California fires and had vegan leather for the interior. The one person that really cared was Leonardo di Caprio – he bought the first one and was really into sustainability back then. We were definitely too early but there were a lot of lessons learned and it took me to the next level, right?
4. What makes Fisker Inc different to other EV start-ups?
There are two big differences. Firstly, our business model, we’re a digital car company, so we invest all our funds into the product and not into factories and that means we can fulfil our second differentiating factor, which is to give the customer the most value for money. I’ve done several hundred thousand plus dollar cars in my life and I see a lot of expensive EVs out there and my aim for the Fisker Ocean was to come up with a really cool but affordable EV. I think the market is missing a £35,000 SUV that is sporty, sustainable but with unique features nobody else has.
For example, we wanted to have the longest range in our segment and we achieved that with a 390 mile range in our top model. We then wanted to have the most sustainable vehicle – now how do we prove that? Well, we are ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) compliant, and while nearly all major automakers are rolling out their own EV models, it is still challenging to find ones that rank high in ESG - not because they don’t care or are too focused on the bottom-line, but because it’s challenging to meet all of the standards when everything is evolving so fast, and it is interesting to compare the data. For instance, BMW say the 5 Series has 27 kilos of recycled and biodegradable material, in the Ocean we use 50 kilos, which is a lot.
On top of that, of course, we have the solar roof here, which is very cool. Maybe you don’t get as much out of it in England as you do in California, but when the sun is out you can have up to 1500 miles free per year. Then we have this screen here which is unique, it is 17.1 inches and when you’re driving it’s ergonomically best to use it like that [in portrait position] and then when you stop and charge you can turn it around [landscape] and watch a movie.
We also have a unique approach when it comes to ride and handling. Even though it’s an SUV it actually drives really well. One of our advisors is a British racing instructor and a performance driving coach – Abbie Eaton [test driver for second and third series of The Grand Tour]]. We were in Italy recently testing at Bridgestone's European Proving Ground and she help set up the car to feel super safe yet sporty. So we’re targeting both men and women with this vehicle, of course, and what’s also unique about Fisker is that our entire interior design team are female.
What we said was we wanted at least four or five features that no one else had. And the last feature I want to mention is California mode where all the windows go down, even these little three quarter windows at the rear – we call these doggy windows by the way so when your dog sits in the trunk it can stick its head out and sniff the air – so it gives off an almost cabriolet feel
5. How tough has it been to forge new relationships with suppliers after Fisker Automotive was sold in a bankruptcy auction in 2013?
Well, I don’t think that necessarily had an impact because we had a new company that we went public with in 2020 and raised well over 1.6 billion dollars in the meantime. At the end of the day it’s about money in this industry but it’s also about relationships and it’s about whether suppliers believe in you and your product and your business model. That’s one of the reasons we’ve taken reservations so we can show them and our investors that somebody actually likes this car, and we now have over 52,000 reservations, which speaks for itself.
I think the final thing is we forged a very strong relationship with Magna and they own 6 per cent of Fisker and that gave suppliers a lot of confidence, so we can make promises about delivering on time. To that end I think we’re the only EV company not to have had a delay – we’re still on time to start production on November 17th of this year, and we haven’t lowered our forecast of production either, in fact we’re looking to raise it as we have more reservations than we expected.
6. So you weren’t affected by the chip shortage?
We had to work with one of our suppliers to redesign the door handle as it’s very advanced which was annoying, but because we design our cars in half the time a normal automaker does to get new technology to market, it wasn’t so much of a problem. If you think about your phone – that technology is 18 months old, if you buy a brand new car today it’s most likely that technology is four years old. We made this car in two and a half years, so all the tech was chosen last year
7. How do you do that? What’s your secret?
Well we don’t want to give the entire recipe away. There are certain gateways you go through when you make a vehicle and we had to shorten them and the decision making, so some decisions shortened from three months to one week and some from three weeks to one hour and that’s only possible if the CEO – like myself – makes that decision. You can’t go through endless amounts of decision processes. It helps our CFO is co-founder, my wife, and she can makes decisions right there. We also have a development process where we started doing simultaneously engineering and design rather than throwing it over the fence to the next group and so on. We basically came up with a new way of developing a car and we convinced Magna to do this with us. They also wanted to be part of ‘how can we make a car faster’ so we jointly went out to suppliers to say “hey here’s what we need” and it was difficult to convince them but we did because they wanted also wanted a way of getting newer technology into cars.
8. As production ramps up though how can you sustain this approach to making cars?
With Magna we can produce up to 150,000 cars year, which is quite a lot, and we have just signed an agreement with Foxconn to assemble up to 350 to 400,000 vehicles a year so we have enough capacity and we don’t’ have to build factories, educate workers and all that, we just have to concentrate on designing amazing vehicles.
9. So, burning question… We, along with a few car makers we’ve spoken to, want to know how you have managed to make the Ocean so cheaply?
Well again, I don’t know if I want to give that recipe out to everyone but there are several factors. First, we were very cost conscious as we went through every single part in this car. From the beginning we designed it as a high volume car. We made decisions that we don’t want to talk about where we took certain content out and were able to cut costs. And we took a different approach to traditional car manufacturers. They do the same thing they’ve always done in terms of where they spend money on the car and we changed that around. So, for example the bonnet doesn’t open where as they do on most other cars, and by doing this you save on latches, seals, you save on a whole bunch of stuff. That is one area that we said “hey we going to take money out of that and put it where we think customers care”, such as a cool unit interface and large screen.
Then finally, by being a digital car company we don’t have the overheads that some of our competitors have, some electric car companies have thousands of people, we have a little fewer than 500, all development people. So we don’t have thousands of factory workers, we don’t have to pay for unused capacity. We only pay for the capacity of Magna we use.
We also don’t have the brick and mortar, in terms of sales, that everyone else has. We’ll have a few experience centres where you can go see the car, and then we’ll have large distribution centres outside big cities, which are more like large warehouses where you can pick up your car, so we don’t have dealerships which cost a ton of money. For service we’ve partnered with some existing service groups and we’ll pick up the car from the consumer and bring it to their service areas, or if it’s really complicated we’ll take it to our distribution centres. We took costs out everywhere we could and the entire value chain by making our company as asset-light and as lean as possible with little overheads.
And one last thing we were lucky that we agreed with CATL at beginning of last year, for cost reasons, to supply us with small cheaper (LFP) battery packs for our base car. They are based on lithium-ion phosphate chemistry rather than cobalt so we have been unaffected by the increasing price of cobalt. One of the negatives of this different technology is lower energy density – although it’ll still have 275 miles of range – but it is why we are using NMC [nickel-manganese-cobalt] battery packs for our top car.
10. One of the biggest concerns for prospective EV buyers is the inability to charge for long trips – how are you investing in the charging infrastructure?
We invested 10 million dollars in a company called Allego – once of the biggest charging infrastructure groups in Europe and we’re going to offer a full integrated service – the station will recognise your car and you can just pull up and charge. I believe in the future all the different charging groups will have to consolidate and give out their information so you will see them all on the screen, which ones are free, or out of use and so on, and you can book in a slot for however many minutes you need at a certain time, but if you’re late someone else will be able to charge. I think we all have to work on this infrastructure together – both the car industry and the different charging groups.
11. Ocean will be the world’s first production car to have a large solar panel on the roof to charge the high voltage battery, Seems like such a common sense things to do… Why haven’t mainstream car makers adopted this tech?
We were wondering that too, but it’s extremely difficult for a couple of reasons. First, nobody had figured out how to get the solar energy into the high voltage battery, there have been a few small solar panels but they’ve been powered by little fans, so we had to invent a device that could do that. Number two we also had to figure out how to charge the car when you have shut it off, say in a parking lot, so we had to create a special way of not keeping the entire car alive, because that cost electricity. And then finally, it’s actually pretty expensive to put it in, which is why we only do it on the top version. It’s really for people who want the best of the best, not for someone who is sitting at a home with a calculator, saying when will I get my money back. I think later, solar could play a much larger role, because we already know there is technology that is going to improve so we want to be first out there because we’re all about sustainability and we want to offer the most sustainable car.
12. Where do you see the future of Fisker – I read that you want to launch four more models by the end of 2025. That’s pretty ambitious isn’t it?
But that’s because we don’t build factories. We’ve come up with a really lean development process where people are working on several things at the same time and they’re staggered – so they move from one to the other. We’re working on three projects at the moment – it’s a lot but that’s our focus. Our aim is by 2027 to have our first carbon neutral car and by 2027 to have made a million cars a year.
13. What are your industry predictions for the next 12 months with regards to EVs?
I think next year we’ll see an explosion in EVs and there will be a lack of products for the demand. Some models already have a year’s waiting list. My prediction is that we’re soon going to see too many luxury EVs, this is one of the areas that is becoming saturated, and I think the real core of the market is going to cars that cost around £35 to £55,000. This is going to be the hot segment where more normal buyers are coming into EVs but they want the right vehicle for the right price.
I also think that by 2025 every car company is going to have a good EV, and it’s going to be harder to compete, so the more you can do in the next 24 months the better, which is why we have four products in the pipeline. However, when I see what’s coming out in the next two years I still don’t see too many amazing EVs, so there’s a lot of chances to go into new segments. So, for example Fisker’s second vehicle, Project Pear, will be under $30,000, and you don’t see many super cool EVs at that price point. It’s going to be 4.5 metres, so it’ll still be a family car or a car for two people to travel in. And it’s a really radical vehicle – we’re projecting start of production for Q4 2023 for this breakthrough EV.
14. So you have the Fisker Ocean, Project Pear, what are the other two?
The third one is called Ronin – after the Japanese Samurai or the film with Robert De Niro in! And it’s developed here in England – its inspiration is ‘what is the sports car of the future?’ I don’t think it works to take a mid-engine layout and just make a super car of that because, it’s like, why? And I always think that people who like sports cars also own SUVs and that’s because they want more usability, something easier to drive and, they realise they don’t drive crazy fast everyday anyway, so they also want something comfortable to drive in traffic.
So we’re doing a super sexy sports car but it has much more utility – it’s a vehicle you can truly use every day. It’s also very dramatic, as you’ve got to exchange some of that drama from engine noise or gear shifts and we’re doing that with design and inside we’ll do it with noise – so we’ve got a sound studio at Fisker developing sounds for everything you do – whether that’s indicators or whatever.
Then we want a really long range – 600 miles is the aim because it should be a GT you can drive from London to south of France. We’re trying to create a different type of battery integration too. So if you think about an EV today like a Nokia phone – you can take out the battery and the battery has its own casing. What we’re trying to do is this: in the iPhone what they did was they made the case the battery case and that’s why they had more space and it was more energy dense. We’re doing the same with this car. We’re making an integrated battery into the structure of the vehicle to get more volume and that’s how we want to create the longer range. It’s real technical innovation. There’s also a really efficient powertrain and, of course, super powerful. We’re using this vehicle as a technology carrier where we can drizzle some of the ideas into our other models as it’s going to be an expensive car. We haven’t made any announcements about the fourth car.
15. How do you envisage mobility looking in ten years’ time?
First of all it’s going to be fully electric. I think if you own a gasoline car at that time it’s going to be pretty worthless so I wouldn't recommend anyone buy one even now! I’m still convinced about private mobility – and it’s why I’m working so hard on creating a super sustainable vehicle because at least that way the politicians can’t ban them and I think ultimately people at one point in their life enjoy their own mobility. I think car sharing and ride hailing is great and it will definitely expand but I do believe private mobility will still be here in ten years' time.
What I do think will happen is some of the ride-hailing companies and other sort of ride-sharing and delivery services will most likely get more purpose-built, comfortable, vehicles to go from A to B, and those who want private mobility and splash out cash on their own vehicle will want something more exciting, something special. I think that’s how the car industry will change and it may have a negative impact on some of the larger car companies who don’t make exciting vehicles and will turn towards making vehicles for hailing and courier services as they can produce millions of those and that’s what they like to do, and essentially fade away from delivering cars to normal people.