September 15th, 2018 by Kyle Field
CleanTechnica sat down with Henrik Fisker on August 30th, 2018, in Los Angeles to get an update on where Fisker, Inc. is today and where he plans to take the company in the months and years to come. Henrik opened up about his plans for a $40,000 Fisker, solid-state batteries, ultrafast charging, the Fisker Orbit, and more, much of which we covered in an earlier article.
In addition to developing the solid-state batteries that will power its vehicles and building a $40,000 Fisker, the company is working on a fully autonomous electric shuttle that it believes can help provide a premium transition solution for campuses around the world.
The Fisker Orbit
Fisker first took the wraps off of the Orbit shuttle concept in late 2017 with the promise of delivering a fully autonomous, electric shuttle with an interior that carried Fisker’s premium design aesthetic inside. Henrik shared that, “The shuttle, when you see it en route, it’s still a pretty impactful and exciting design. It doesn’t have to look like a fridge on wheels just because it’s not a privately owned car.”
The design of the vehicle is such that it maximizes the interior space, which gives the team at Fisker more options for design. “We’ve moved the electric vehicles out of the space and into the wheels,” Henrik related. As a fully autonomous shuttle, there’s also no driver, which frees up even more space inside the vehicle.
On the outside, the Orbit looks like an shuttle that would be more at home in one of the Back to the Future movies. The design speaks to a much more subtle shift in the business model at Fisker, a shift from an automotive company to a technology company that builds end-to-end e-mobility solutions.
Functionally, the team at Fisker is looking at the Orbit as a single transportation unit that they are designing to be flexible enough to scale up as needed. “If you suddenly need a big bus, you just couple four of these vehicles together and suddenly you’ve got the interior space of a big bus,” Fisker shared. “You may need that during rush hour but when you don’t need it, suddenly these four vehicles depart out on different routes and they can be much more targeted to your specific need.”
Fisker believes the future of mobility will be comprised of connected, autonomous, shared electric vehicles and is looking to carve out a space on the premium end of that new transportation continuum for Fisker’s products. “I still think people would be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality experience,” and that’s what he sees as the sweet spot.
The Orbit will clearly face some competition as it looks to carve out a niche of its own at the same time as Mercedes-Benz is working on a similar pod-based platform, dubbed URBANETIC, with flexibility to allow it to not only haul people around town, but cargo as well.
For now, the Orbit is being kept under wraps, but Fisker is hoping to bring the actual vehicles out into the world for a pilot at the end of 2019. “We are looking to start driving that around and testing it on a campus in the second half of next year.” He shared that the pilot would not be, as I expected, in China, but instead would be deployed at a campus in the United States.
Henrik related that the team is working to build a solution that can deliver a fully functional autonomous vehicle shuttle solution that will travel along pre-defined routes. “It’s really about taking a fully autonomous vehicle and driving it in a geo-fenced area on a set route with virtual stops where you can ask it to stop,” he shared. Henrik envisions a service where people can walk up to the route and request the vehicle to stop anywhere along the route at these “virtual stops.”
It’s a compelling idea but it is clear that the user interface and rider experiences are still very much in development at this point. The idea of fully autonomous shuttles operating along predefined routes is the route others are taking as well, as it eliminates many of the variables that come with driving around on public streets with other drivers.
Hamburg, Germany-based Project HEAT is looking to start its pilot of fully autonomous electric shuttles in early 2019 and the Keolis Navya shuttle just wrapped up a 1 year pilot in Terrebonne, Quebec, in Canada. Keolis Navya is also running a pilot of its shuttles in Las Vegas, Nevada — though, with the route at just under 1 mile long, it’s not breaking any records just yet.
The path forward for Fisker is clearly being paved as the company rolls forward. Prototypes of the vehicle must be built and tested and that’s not even getting into the complexities that come with autonomous driving technology.
To connect Orbit to its passengers, Fisker is working on an app that hints at a completely new direction for the automotive company. “We see ourselves as an e-mobility and technology company. We don’t see ourselves as a car company. The reason is that if you plan to only sell private cars, you can only go down in revenue.”
The new app solution and shuttle hailing experience is being built from the ground up and Fisker was clear that his company is entering uncharted territory here. “We don’t know how long the stops should be,” for the virtual stops or even if the concept of virtual stops will make sense to passengers. With so many mobility-on-demand services like Uber and Lyft offering this type of service, it feels like an intuitive option, but it’s hard to tell until the solution is put into use in a real-world pilot.
Ultimately, the Orbit is about lowering the cost of transit and offering a new mode of extremely efficient transit to riders. “It’s important that we make it efficient and desirable.” This is the core of what makes Orbit a Fisker solution. Henrik is passionate about building solutions and, increasingly, experiences that tap into the core needs of drivers and passengers … but that’s uncharted territory for an automotive designer who has spent decades designing cars.
“We cannot afford this to be a loss-leader so we’re working on a business model that will work from the get-go and make us money.” Building a vehicle that brings today’s technology to market with incremental, value-add improvements like autonomous driving has the potential to make a splash with transit operators around the world, but it is still no small feat.
The Path Forward
Henrik Fisker has never been one to dream too small, but the real question is: has he bitten off too much with Fisker, Inc. — building the EMotion, a $40,000 electric car, a fully autonomous shuttle, a new shuttle service, all while developing what he believes is the next-generation battery technology with its solid-state battery tech? Building multiple cars is something that even Elon Musk and his team of imagineers at Tesla have shied away from to date, and they are now running at 40,000 employees strong.
It is a compelling future that Fisker paints, and I for one am hopeful that the company can achieve it, because we will all be better off with more options for electrified transportation but I’m nervous. It’s a steep series of challenges.
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