China’s hunger for electric car technology may give Fisker a second chance

Karma on wheels.
Karma on wheels.
Image: PRNewsFoto/Fisker Automotive via APImages
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This article has been corrected.

Fisker may have designed the hybrid car sometimes called the “most beautiful of the 21st century,” but that hasn’t stopped it from teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Fortunately for the ailing Tesla rival, help is on the way, as Reuters reports, in the form of an offer from ex-General Motors executive Bob Lutz and China’s largest maker of auto parts, Wanxiang Group. If accepted, it would be the latest in a series of deals showing increased Chinese corporate interest in next-generation cars. 

Fisker, which was launched during the clean tech boom years, inspired many in its short but illustrious history. That includes the US Department of Energy, which once believed in Fisker enough to lend it $529 million. But as the company’s fortunes waned, so did the DoE’s faith. Lutz, on the other hand, is unfazed by its shaky finances. “I want Fisker to live and succeed,” he recently wrote in Forbes, as he (almost) argued in favor of a US government bailout.

And now Lutz has found fellow devotees in Wanxiang Group, which already bought Fisker’s bankrupt battery supplier (paywall) in January, in a deal some US lawmakers criticized for giving a Chinese company access to US military technology. (In response, Wanxiang divested of the business units with government contracts.) Fisker’s future is far from set, though. Reuters reports that a separate bid for its DoE debt obligation—it still owes $171 million—may be taken on by Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li and European investors. Negotiations, which are separate from the Lutz/Wanxiang offer, are ongoing.

Wanxiang is not the only Chinese company sizing up US advanced car technology, particularly batteries. This is understandable, given that China is the world’s biggest market for vehicles, and many expect it to soon become the largest for electric cars as well. But the country’s “new energy” car policy has so far failed to gain traction despite growing government support. Honda chief Takanobu Ito thinks Chinese consumers aren’t yet ready for expensive high-tech hybrid vehicles, valuing affordable options instead. He might be right. But if the Wanxiang/Lutz bid triumphs, it will be another sign that when China is ready for hybrids, its companies will be too.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Fisker had already gone bankrupt. It has not.