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Electric Vehicles

So Your EV Maker Goes Bankrupt. Now What?

Fisker Ocean owners may be up a creek.

A drowning Fisker.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Fisker

When I visited the Electrify Expo in Long Beach, California last month, the traditional automakers had set up tents and booths buzzing with happy representatives ready to show off their electric and electrified vehicles to the media and the public. And then there was Fisker, where one lonely man sat amid a group of Ocean EVs, wondering whether anyone would talk to him.

The writing was already on the wall that day. This week, the electric startup filed for its inevitable Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

In March, Fisker slashed the prices of its vehicles in a desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy. It did not succeed, nor was there ever a real chance that it would. The collapse marks the second failed car company for founder Henrik Fisker, and the list of reasons makes for an excellent business school case study in what not to do. But for those of us who own an electric vehicle, or may soon buy one, Fisker’s downfall brings up a question that’s especially pointed for anyone buying a car from an EV startup: What happens if the company that made your car isn’t around anymore?

The problem is as old as the car industry. While Ford and Chevrolet feel like they’ve been around since the dawn of time, automotive history is littered with car brands that don’t make cars anymore. Studebaker. Hudson. Pontiac. Oldsmobile. Saturn. Packard. One could go on. When the companies disappeared, their vehicles became “orphan cars” with no parent company around to make parts for or fix them.

Not every orphanage looks the same. Pontiac and Oldsmobile, for example, were divisions of General Motors by the time they were killed off, so GM remained to honor warranty claims on the cars. Plymouth owners had parent company Chrysler to turn to when that marque went to the chrome mausoleum. Sometimes, a car brand like Isuzu or Suzuki quits selling cars in the American market but the company itself remains intact, and so many have been sold previously that plenty of shops and mechanics who know how to work on those vehicles remain.

When a car company that hasn’t operated in the United States for many years disappears entirely, things get dicier. Enthusiasts still collect and drive vehicles from long-dead carmakers. But acquiring parts for them can be a wild goose chase, and maintaining them relies on knowledge passed down among a select few.

Here in the EV era, the few-thousand people who bought (and actually received) a Fisker Ocean are in a tight spot. Their warranty coverage will technically endure as long as Fisker’s court proceedings are ongoing, since it’s always possible that the company could emerge from Chapter 11 and still exist on the other side. As long as Fisker is in limbo, Ocean owners might be able to get the company to fix their cars.

If the company truly goes belly-up, though — which seems like the likeliest outcome — then all bets are off. Fisker’s assets would be liquidated, and owners may be lost in the shuffle as the automaker’s pieces are sold off for pennies on the dollar to anybody who might want them.

Any Fisker-specific parts would be extremely hard to come by if the company (which was slow on its production goals in the first place) vanishes. There would be no more over-the-air software updates to add features or fix bugs; that’s more bad news since right up to the point of bankruptcy, the company was sending out updates just to fix basic operations. Even relatively simple repairs may be hard to achieve once Fisker is no more. The U.S. faces an ongoing shortage of auto mechanics trained to fix electric vehicles, which are an entirely different beast compared to internal combustion. It’s not like any old garage down the street could or would work on an Ocean.

Ocean owners are not silently accepting this crappy outcome. A bunch of them just banded together to form the Fisker Owners Association in the hopes of collectively keeping their rides driveable and viable long after Fisker the company is no more. They are fighting for ongoing support of the Ocean’s software and continued access to the 4G internet the vehicle needs for its in-car navigation system to work. They are tearing apart their Oceans to find out which parts are common and which are proprietary, and using that knowledge to build a database for all Fisker drivers.

Their troubles — and their collective action to take more control over their own cars — should be a note of both warning and hope to other EV drivers. Perhaps the disarray at Fisker makes it a special case that was doomed to fail at some point. But even respected and well-regarded EV startups like Lucid and Rivian aren’t in the rosiest financial situation. The former had to severely slow down its production projections; the latter is trying to navigate the “valley of death” until it can get its mass-market R2 and R3 vehicles on sale. Even EV king Tesla was reportedly “about a month” from bankruptcy during the dire months of 2020 when it tried to scale up manufacturing of the Model 3. Oh, and there was that time in the 2000s that Detroit’s Big Three nearly collapsed.

Rivian and Lucid owners are surely in a better spot than their Fisker counterparts — both companies are in a better position to succeed than Fisker ever was, and are more likely to receive the investment they’ll need to avoid going to bankruptcy court, should it ever come to that. But there’s never a sure thing in life, and owning an EV from a new company inherently generates some risk of becoming an orphan.

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Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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