A123 Systems to replace defective Fisker Karma battery components

Fisker-Karma-front-lightsBattery manufacturer A123 Systems will replace battery packs in 2012 Fisker Karmas. The company said the action was not part of a recall, but a response to the highly publicized breakdown of a Karma while being tested by Consumer Reports.

During testing, a dashboard warning light came on in Consumer Reports’ Karma, then the car refused to restart after it was parked for a short period of time. A Fisker dealer replaced the entire battery pack under warranty. At the time, Fisker CEO Tom LaSorda said the car had performed as-designed, claiming the car shut down when the onboard diagnostics detected a problem with the battery pack.

“This is a new industry with a new technology that’s in the process of a learning curve,” said David Vieau, CEO of A123. “There will be challenges.” The company said the problem stems from defective cells in the battery modules and packs produced at A123’s Livonia, Michigan plant.

Vieau’s description of the defect echoes LaSorda’s. The A123 CEO said, “The vehicle is designed in such a way that evidence of the particular defect would warn the customer and the vehicle would continue to operate. Only by putting it in park would the vehicle not operate.” That sounds exactly like what happened to Consumer Reports’ Karma, which begs the question of whether there is anything about this emergency shutdown protocol in the Karma’s owner’s manual.

A123 Systems said it was “difficult to know” how many cars will be affected by the defect, or which Karmas got their batteries from the Michigan plant. The company did say that the problem affects five of its corporate customers, and that replacing the defective battery packs and modules will cost about $55 million.

In addition to supplying batteries to Fisker, A123 Systems builds them for BMW and Chevrolet. The company makes batteries for the ActiveHybrid 5 and ActiveHybrid 3, but in China, not Michigan. A123 will also supply batteries for the Chevy Spark EV when that car goes into production in 2013. It also supplies batteries to Navistar, BAE Systems, and other commercial vehicle manufacturers.

A123 batteries were also responsible for a December 2011 recall of 239 Karmas. In that recall, the issue was a potential coolant leak in the battery pack that could cause a fire. At the time, Fisker said the leak was caused by badly placed hose clamps in the battery pack, which was sealed by A123 before being delivered to the Fisker assembly plant.

If both high-profile failures turn out to be caused by a supplier’s components, and not the Karma’s design itself, it would help Fisker save face. But only a little: as part of a battery supply deal from 2010, A123 Systems invested $23 million in Fisker, who will need to find more cash and a new battery supplier if A123’s quality control issues cannot be rectified. Fisker is trying to raise $100 million by the end of the month to fix the Karma’s reliability issues, and to start production of its next car, the Nina.