3 key differences between Tesla and Fisker

Tesla Roadsters lined up outside of the Model S Beta Customer event

This week two Valley-backed and government-supported electric car companies — Tesla and Fisker — have been taking two very different paths: one up and one down.

As you read this, I’ll shortly be heading down to Tesla’s design studio to attend the company’s Model X electric SUV launch event. The Model X is the company’s third electric car — which will be one of the first electric SUVs ever in the world — and Tesla could start selling the first Model X cars by the end of 2013. By this Summer Tesla pans to start selling its second car the Model S (if it meets its target), and it’s already sold around 2,000 Roadsters and signed several development deals with huge automakers. If you need to be convinced that Tesla is doing OK, just check out its stock price: it’s above $30, after an IPO in the Summer of 2010 priced at $17 per share.

Then on the other hand there’s Fisker, which has been dominating the electric car news this week with another type of story. This week Fisker announcedthat it’s suspending work on its second planned car, Project Nina, that was supposed to be built in Delaware with a Department of Energy loan. The company had delayed (by months and years) shipping its first car the Karma to the extent that it couldn’t make the milestones to get the remainder of the DOE loan. Fisker is trying

Tesla merch at the Model S Beta Customer event

to renegotiate the loan, or look for other funding for Project Nina, but in the meantime is putting its head down to work on selling the Karma — a car that came out with a $20,o00 higher than expected price tag and a far lower than expected MPG.

A lot of people have asked me why is one doing so well, while the other seems to be struggling, despite that the companies share a lot of similarities. Back in 2008 the companies even shared a few things that were a little too close for comfort (Tesla at one point sued Fisker alleging that Fisker stole Tesla’s design ideas and trade secrets). So here’s 10 key differences between these two electric car makers:

1). Tech vs design: Tesla has been building next-gen electric vehicle technology since its inception in 2003, and made a strategic bet at the beginning of its life to build cars around packaging commoditized (low cost) small-format batteries. Tesla is selling its battery pack and powertrain tech to some of the largest auto makers out there, like Tesla’s $100 million deal with Toyota, for its RAV-4 EV. Tesla can use this tech to not only make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from development deals, but all of that IP is extremely valuable, and puts the company in control of a lot more of the development of its cars.

Fisker is a design shop first before it’s a technology company. The company founder Henrik Fisker is the well-known auto designer behind the Aston Martin. Fisker has a long-term supply agreement deal with Quantum for the powertrain tech and software for the Karma and Fisker gets its Karma batteries from A123 Systems. Fisker has no plans to sell or license car tech, which means it doesn’t have that valuable IP and also it won’t be making revenues off of development deals. Also it’s subject to issues in third party tech, like the battery problem that emerged in late 2011, that led to a recall and fix of the Karmas on the market.

2). Stage of development: Tesla is about four years older than Fisker, but it seems like EV-years are like dog years, they’re accelerated. Tesla went through its roller coaster, delay-filled and worrisome years about four years ago. Tesla won $465 millionin DOE loans after it eeked past that period and about three months after it started delivering its

Fisker Karmas

first car. Fisker was awarded $529 million in loans from the DOE, over two years before it delivered its first car the Karma.

Tesla was at just the right stage of development to be able to make use of those government loans to build its own factory for the Model S. On the other hand, Fisker was not in the right stage to start planning a factory for a second car that was supposed to produce 75,000 to 100,000 cars annually.

3). Elon Musk: Tesla has a founder and CEO that has put up some serious cash to keep the business running, particularly getting Tesla through the dark days of the downturn. There’s not an equivalent at Fisker, or at most companies, and Fisker’s investors are made up of dozens of firms and wealthy individuals.

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