The spectacular failure, last year, of Fisker Automotive, having swallowed hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, should not be a surprise. In fact, we should probably be more surprised that a startup such as Tesla has so far succeeded in the risky, emerging, EVs sector.
The history of startup businesses aiming to sell cars to consumers should pose a warning to anyone contemplating such a venture. But it’s great for the future of EVs that people still go ahead with crazy plans. The craziest is to target high-volume sales of a premium sports car like the Fisker Karma. The DeLorean affair is another well-known example. Joann Muller’s article about Fisker and Tesla in Forbes magazine also recalls the doomed Bricklin sports-car startup – a marque that I first encountered while playing Top Trumps in the school playground (actually I was quite pleased to be dealt the Bricklin, as it had a vast V8 engine that would beat most other cars in the pack except something like the ludicrous Panther 6. The Panther was another crazy idea destined for failure…).
Good-looking electric sports car proposals, however unlikely to succeed, must keep coming forward if EVs in general are to succeed. Although few people will buy them, lots would want them, and that kind of attention is needed to help sell the more practical and affordable models that are better able to deliver a return on their creators’ investment.
In the past, car makers and styling houses would craft eye-catching sporty “concept cars” to generate interest in their brands. Posed seductively at the world’s motor shows, or in photographers’ studios, some were even driveable – although never usually intended for production. I can say from experience this was often a source of disappointment for young Top Trumps players. How I wish Ferrari had produced Pininfarina’s Modulo, or that Lamborghini had put the Bravo or Athon into production. Kudos to BMW for making the M1; classic car dealers can turn a profit on the car now, but I doubt BMW did. As a promotional tool for its M-Sport brand, however, it was arguably very effective.
As far as Tesla is concerned, Katie Fehrenbacher on gigaom.com suggests that developing its own IP has been a key factor in the company’s success to date. Something Fisker apparently did not do. But maybe it is finance that has really been the key factor for Tesla. It seems the business has consumed almost every cent that founder Elon Musk made from PayPal, and has attracted copious investment capital, while also benefiting from cleverly selling millions of US Dollars of carbon credits to conventional car makers, according to Muller’s article for Forbes. The new Model S also happens to be, in my opinion, an extremely attractive and desirable car. One place to see it is in West London at Tesla’s new retail unit in the Westfield Centre at White City. The bare chassis on display next to the demonstrator illustrates the amazing compactness of the motor and drivetrain.
Now looks like a good time to be in the EV business, but to embark on a sports car startup may be only for those with deep pockets or no fear of failure (or both). Startups may be better advised to concentrate on building a superior motor, battery, control electronics, or user-interface application, and leave established car brands to wheel out the aspirational sports cars that will help turn the once-leftfield EV into an object of mass-market desire.