Interview: Henrik Fisker talks new companies, the future of car design and ... minivans
The year is almost over, and Henrik Fisker has a lot to look back and reflect upon. Twenty-sixteen has been a whirlwind for the famous car designer and entrepreneur. Way back at its start, he teamed up with Bob Lutz and Gilbert Villarreal to create VLF Automotive and show the sinister Force 1. Along the way, he launched his own company and teased his forthcoming electric car and even designed a 164-foot (50-m) superyacht. Despite all on his plate, Fisker found a slice of time to chat with us about the diverse vehicles keeping him busy, the Fisker brand moving forward, the evolution of car design in a fast-changing automotive landscape, and, yep, even minivans.
Fisker's busy year made for a busy interview, with a whole lot to cover in 30 minutes. We focused most of our attention on his revived eponymous brand, Fisker Inc., and the EMotion, the sporty electric sedan that the brand claims will become the first EV with a 400-mile (644-km) range. Fisker Inc. has revealed the first renderings and initial details of the car but won't reveal the car in full until the middle of next year.
New Atlas: After Fisker Automotive, do you worry at all the Fisker brand will have a detrimental impact on your new company?
Henrik Fisker: You know, I think every brand in the world has gone through ups and downs. I'm sure you're well aware of the car companies that went out of business in 2008. And you've had other brands that have seen difficulties here and there, even some of the most famous ones.
I think the key is that you come out with products which are embracing and true to the brand. Fisker is about coming out with innovations, being the first, and obviously when you're the first, you take a big risk. We were in the Wild West back in 2007 when it came to electric cars. There were only three battery companies and we ended up with A123, which had two recalls and ultimately went bankrupt, which of course forced us into financial difficulties and ultimately the company was sold to the Chinese.
I was able to keep the brand and cancel the contract for license with the Chinese, and that gave me the opportunity to bring the brand back. We already had hundreds and hundreds of people who ordered the new car even before we had barely shown it. It shows us a lot of excitement, loyalty, etc. in the Fisker brand.
New Atlas: Any specific lessons that you learned from Fisker Automotive that you plan to apply to the new company or your work moving forward?
Henrik Fisker: Absolutely, the battery, that really is a big lesson for me, that we have to control our battery development and testing. So right now, we have created a company called Fisker Nanotech together with a group called Nanotech, which is a spinout from UCLA that's developed a new technology for batteries using graphene. And Fisker Inc., we're doing all the battery testing and we're managing development of the battery packs, and we also have a backup solution in case there will be any delays or anything else with this new technology.
New Atlas: Any timeframe that will be developed, the graphene technology?
Henrik Fisker: The interesting thing is this has actually been under development for quite a long time, and I think we got in with the company right as they were having several breakthroughs in this technology and filing patents, etc. We are already producing cells, but in very low volume, and we are going through automotive testing now of these cells with sort of a third-party testing facility to verify everything we need. We're quite far in the development of this, which is also why we're going to be able to bring our first car to market in not a very long timeframe. We're already showing a driving prototype of our vehicle middle next year.
New Atlas: Any specific date or show that you'll be showing the vehicle?
Henrik Fisker: We haven't nailed down a date yet, but I think we'll most likely do it at a private event as we don't necessarily need to invite all our competitors up to see all our latest stuff. It'll probably more be some of the first potential customers, some journalists, etc. It'll most likely be in Southern California.
New Atlas: How did designing the EMotion fully electric car open up some possibilities that maybe weren't available for some of the gas-engine cars that you've designed in the past?
Henrik Fisker: One of the things that I think nobody's done yet is really taking advantage of the electric powertrain layout, which of course, means you don't have a gasoline engine in the front and you don't have a gas tank in the rear. So I really wanted to challenge myself and sort of think out of the box and try to do something really innovative by moving the proportions around, free up a lot more interior space by moving certain elements out and stretching the cabin. That has allowed us, even though the car is very sporty and compact-looking, still to have quite incredible interior space - rear legroom is as much as some full-size luxury sedans, even though the car is more compact.
It's really hard to see in the picture, but I can guarantee when you walk up to this car, you will have a hard time putting it in a specific segment because it looks very different in a lot of different ways, with proportions that you're not kind of used to. That's of course also a challenge from a design point of view, to make sure that ultimately you create a really desirable and beautiful vehicle, and, of course, that test can only really be made by the consumer, if they're willing to buy it.
New Atlas: Building on that a little bit, I've noticed some of the major automakers have had a little difficulty trying to figure out what to do with the front-end of electric vehicles since you don't need the grille there anymore. How do you think that the EV front-end should evolve?
Henrik Fisker: Now I actually evolved that [EMotion] design [since the renderings were released] so it's not really the front-end of the vehicle anymore. That was one of the things that I decided to change. It's definitely one of the most difficult parts, to a certain extent, because people always identify a vehicle on the grille. I do think that's obviously a very difficult thing for traditional car companies that have built their entire brand design DNA on the big grille they had in front because you had a gasoline engine that needed air. So with electric cars you don't really have that; you need some air in, but not as much.
For me, I'm really looking at creating a very strong design DNA in the front for future Fisker vehicles and it's definitely a challenge. However, we do have some other technology that you potentially can make use of to create some sort of exciting design details, such as radar, etc. that you need for autonomous driving and for automated safety systems. So it's a challenge, and I'm pretty excited about what we have now. It's really a dramatic front-end, and I've spent some more time on other things that I think you can work with, the sculpture on the hood and the front fenders, so I think there are other ways to create an exciting front-end.
New Atlas: Do you have a production estimate or timeframe?
Henrik Fisker: We'll announce that in the middle of next year when we show the vehicle.
New Atlas: There's mention of fully autonomous tech. Does that mean no driver input-style technology or is it a lesser level?
Henrik Fisker: So we will have all the hardware that's necessary for Level 5 autonomous driving, but obviously at that point you get to really more of a question of what are the rules and regulations. I think by the time we launch the vehicle, hopefully we have some more clarity on that.
It's something I think that all the car companies and even all the legislators are discussing. I think everybody's trying to figure out what is the right way to ultimately deploy that technology, and do you roll it out slowly, so maybe it's certain situations and certain areas. I mean, there's obviously a big difference between driving on the freeway in the desert, where there are no children playing or running over the road, than deploying it in a neighborhood. And then, of course, there's a whole discussion about, well you can drive automated but you have to have your hands on the steering wheel. Well, how does that work if you drive autonomous for six months and suddenly you have to use the steering wheel - are you really going to pay attention to that split second when that's needed? Probably not.
So I think there's a lot of things we have to figure out over the next few years, but until then, there's obviously a lot of safety advantages, where you can have lane departure avoidance, collision avoidance, automated braking, etc. So I think we're going to see a lot of safety elements roll out first. Maybe then you're going to have some parking, where you can arrive at the airport at your terminal and then the car goes and parks itself. When you arrive back, you just take out your smartphone and basically just call your car. So essentially you might end up with your own personal Uber or Lyft, instead of having to call somebody else's car with a driver. So there may be some interesting things that will happen before you necessarily walk into your car, start reading your newspaper and get driven to work.
New Atlas: Will it be upgradeable, then, if you'll have the hardware necessary for full-on autonomy?
Henrik Fisker: So we will have all the hardware already in the vehicle, so it'll be fully upgradeable when the rollout is fully proven and tested and the software is ready.
New Atlas: Looking ahead to when autonomous technology becomes more standard, how do you think that will influence car design, as far as exterior design? Do you think that will change over time?
Henrik Fisker: Well, I don't think the exterior design necessarily needs to change. I think we still have a love for cars, and whether you're going to be driven in a car or whether you drive the car yourself, I think most people still want a good-looking car. That's the reason why, when you order a cab, you prefer a sedan over a minivan to pick you up because it just isn't as cool to be driven somewhere in a minivan. I think people are still conscious about how the car looks, whether they're going to be driven in it or not.
Now on the interior side, it obviously opens up some possibilities, and one of the things, because our vehicle will be ready for fully autonomous driving, we have already thought about that in the interior. For instance, every seat in the car has received the same attention when it comes to design and comfort, and even just the look.
New Atlas: Will the seats have any swivel capabilities like we've seen on some of the concept cars?
Henrik Fisker: To be able to swivel around, I think is really good for a concept car, but in reality, I think for normal vehicles, if you actually look at how a vehicle is designed and packaged it doesn't make a lot of sense. You're going to almost have to design a sort of minivan, so now it comes back to this point: do you really want to drive around in a minivan all the time just to have that capability? Maybe that fits for certain type of vehicles, in certain situations.
My view is that we will still have many different categories of cars in the future. Probably looking at a piece of paper and all the features of a minivan, the minivan is probably the best car in the world. But at the end of the day, most people really only want a minivan for a certain part of their lives, when they're forced to have it because they have a lot of kids they've got to carry around or whatever, so I still think that the emotional connection with the car is very important and that's what Fisker's all about. We're not about minivans; we're about that emotional connection between the person and the car.
New Atlas: Any ballpark pricing on the first car, where it will be in relation to other vehicles?
Henrik Fisker: We haven't announced it yet, but our first car will be sort of in the upper end of the market, just over $100,000. We really want modern technology in this vehicle, and we're not expecting this to be an extremely high-volume vehicle. We're simultaneously working on our high-volume vehicle, and that will be very, very competitively priced, but a different type of vehicle.
Beyond building Fisker Inc., Henrik's design work has also carried him to Detroit, where he's partnered up in VLF Automotive and launched the Force 1, a wickedly aggressive sports car with a 745-hp 8.4-liter V10 and opulent interior.
New Atlas: Could you tell me how VL became VLF?
Henrik Fisker: I had started the project of the Force 1 with a gentleman out of Texas, Ben Keating, a race car driver. I was looking for a place to build the car, and I knew Bob Lutz and Gilbert were having this company called VL Automotive, where they were building the Destino, which is a Fisker Karma with a V8 engine. I knew they had a factory there. So I called up and went to Detroit, sat down with them, and Bob said, "Henrik, instead of us building a car, why don't you just join the company and we just add an F, call it VLF."
And I said, "Well you already have a logo."
He said, "I'm sure you can design a new one," gave me a napkin, and I sketched a new logo. He said, "that's it!"
I took a 33 percent stake in the company, and the rest is history, as they say.
New Atlas: After designing a couple of green cars, was it difficult to go back to designing something around a 15-mpg V10 engine?
Henrik Fisker: It was just as easy as when you eat salad the whole week and then you eat a giant steak on the weekend. It was great!
I think that, again, I'm not one of those radical believers that everybody has to be forced to do one thing. America's all about freedom of choice, and I really hope that in the future we still have a great choice of vehicles. I think with more electric vehicles on the road, hopefully we'll still be able to drive some fantastic sports cars with big V8s, or V10s, or even V12s. Why not? If we can find a way to balance the automotive world, where ultimately, when we have most of the commuters drive electric cars, then we won't really have any issue with some sports cars driving around. I think there's nothing like getting into a Force sports car and hearing the amazing growl of the engine and interacting with the mechanics through the gearbox.
So it's exciting, and we're making only a handful of cars. It's kind of like a boy's club. We make very few cars; we're going to make 50 of the Force 1. We don't have any marketing department; we don't have any sales numbers we have to meet. We're having a lot of fun.
New Atlas: After looking at both the EMotion and Force 1, it seems like the headlights are getting smaller and smaller, any particular reason for that?
Henrik Fisker: The technology allows headlamps to become smaller and slimmer. I mean you have the LED lights, probably we could make them even smaller. On the EMotion, the headlights are slightly bigger, then the Force 1 is really extreme. You can make them so small that they almost disappear, but I think headlights are also part of the face of a car.
Again, the face we have shown on the EMotion is not the final design - it was an earlier sketch, that in the meantime during the development has changed. But I do think, in the future, headlamps are probably going to be smaller, slimmer. I also think that a lot of designers will start playing around with the daylight running lights. That gives a lot of character to the vehicles in different ways, so I think designers are going to play around with that to try and give each brand a certain DNA so you can almost recognize what car it is when you look at the headlamps.
New Atlas: Have (Force 1) deliveries begun?
Henrik Fisker: Yeah, we just delivered the first one to Texas. And we're still doing some fine-tuning of the active suspension, and we have another three in the build. We're kind of slowly ramping up the production but still doing some fine-tuning. We're mostly selling these cars to car collectors, some going to Europe, a car collector over there that has 250 cars. It's really for people who actually enjoy having somebody walking up and saying, "What is that?" They don't necessarily need the sort of brand statement of the traditional supercar; they kind of like to have something that nobody else has. It's a unique type of customer that we're building these cars for.
On future design projects:
New Atlas: You're famous for designing cars; you've done a yacht now. Anything else that you'd like to design that you have never done before?
Henrik Fisker: You know, I've never designed a bicycle, so one day that would be fun to do. But I don't really have time for it right now.
I also would like to design a really cool watch. I've done a little bit of watches in the past, but I didn't have a lot of freedom because it was already sort of set in stone, everything around the watch. So I think a watch in the future would definitely be in the cards.
New Atlas: On the flip side, any type of vehicle that you just wouldn't dare try your hand at?
Henrik Fisker: No, I would design any vehicle, but probably least likely ... a minivan.
Our interview also delved into Fisker's yacht collaboration with Italy's Benetti, and we will look more closely at that $37 million vessel in a future article.