‘Waymo’s not on our radar’ – Henrik Fisker on the future of premium shared mobility

Recently reincarnated from its previous life as a luxury EV manufacturer, Fisker Inc. believes there is a gap in the market for a premium offering. Freddie Holmes caught up with Founder and Chief Executive, Henrik Fisker, to find out more

At the tap of a button, your ride from the coffee shop to the airport has been confirmed – a ticker on the smartphone displays an approximate arrival time, and a pin highlights the exact pickup location. With little more than a whirr from its electric motors, a shuttle soon glides to the side of the road and opens its bay doors. There’s no driver in sight, or steering wheel, and its open plan layout gives the option to sit or stand. It’s a short trip, but there’s plenty of room so you take a seat. Passing by bus stops teeming with flustered travellers, the shuttle comes to a halt outside of the departures terminal. It’s been a breeze, and you even managed to get some work done on the way.

This is a popular concept, and surprisingly is not the specific vision of Waymo, Uber or any of the other familiar ride-share names that have been pumping money into the segment; the shuttle in question is being developed by Fisker Inc., the ex-automaker that recently rebranded itself as a ‘mobility and technology company’.

It is a significant shift from the firm’s heritage in manufacturing premium sports cars. Previously known as Fisker Automotive, the brand’s only production model, the Karma, launched back in 2011. Much like the Tesla Model S, it quickly garnered a cult following due to its powerful yet silent powertrain. “Fiskers don’t make noise when they start up, just so you know,” touted rapper Childish Gambino in a single released back in 2013. By 2014, however, Fisker Automotive had gone under following supply issues with its battery pack manufacturer, A123 Systems.

Fast forward to 2018, and Fisker Inc. is developing its own solid-state batteries, and has scheduled a second attempt at a premium electric vehicle (EV). Due to launch in 2020, the EMotion is a fully electric four-door luxury coupe with nearly 800bhp and a 400-mile driving range. While the EMotion will undoubtedly take the lion’s share of media attention, it is future mobility that has Founder and Chief Executive, Henrik Fisker, excited. As he puts it, automakers will not be able to cut it in a world of shared mobility if building cars is their only offering. “All car companies today will have to change their business model if they are going to survive long term,” he told M:bility. “As a car company, the audience you can attract will be far too small if you only make passenger cars in the future. We will still have private vehicles, but there will also be a menu of other mobility options that we will either be tempted – or forced – to use, because of regulations.”

Much of this comes down to the idea of optimising ‘last mile’ travel. Congestion and pollution has led many cities to discourage private vehicle use within city centres, and it is proving increasingly difficult to reach the heart of a city. Then there are the needs of locals, who may not need or be able to own a car. Ride-share services have helped to offer an alternative, as have e-scooters and dockless bicycles. However, there are also those that will be travelling on business and expect more of a high-end experience. It is this segment that Fisker has in mind, and it is pushing the idea of premium mobility on demand.

“People today have a choice between buying the cheapest model right up to a Rolls-Royce or Bentley,” he explains. “Those who eventually exit their Bentley – or Fisker EMotion – would then want a more luxurious next choice of transport instead of sitting in an ugly fridge on wheels with a cheap plastic bench. Our idea is that we should offer our customers that last mile of mobility with a Fisker experience.”

The Fisker experience

The connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE) megatrends have been thrust into the marketing plans of most major automakers, along with a slew of start-ups looking to grab a piece of the action. This could all be interpreted as little more than toothless spiel, but follow the money and it becomes clear that it is being taken seriously.

In March 2011, Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Company, spoke about how his vision had changed from “how do we sell more cars and trucks” to “what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks.” Since then, the automaker has made a gradual transition toward becoming ‘Ford Mobility Company’, with its Chariot ride-hailing programme rolling out in several markets. In December 2016, Volkswagen created MOIA, an in-house mobility services company tasked with investigating alternative and ‘attractive’ solutions. “Even though not everyone will still own a car in future, MOIA can help make everyone a customer of our company in some way or another,” said then Group Chief Executive Matthias Müller at its launch.

Those people who eventually exit their Bentley – or Fisker EMotion – would then want to get into a more luxurious choice of transport instead of sitting in an ugly fridge on wheels with a cheap plastic bench. Our idea is to offer our customers that last mile of mobility with a Fisker experience

Daimler’s car2go and BMW’s DriveNow car-sharing services are in the process of merging to consolidate resources. General Motors has formed Maven, a peer-to-peer service in which owners can rent their cars out when not in use. In October 2018, Elon Musk described Tesla’s long-term strategy for shared mobility as a “combination of Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.” Then there are a slew of other mobility services formed by start-ups like Didi (China), Enjoy (Italy) and Grab (Singapore) to name but a fraction of the market. According to the 2018 Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, the number of passengers using ride-hailing apps globally grew by 28% in the second half of 2017, up to 769 million users.

How, then, does ‘the Fisker experience’ break into what is an already crowded market? Enter the ‘Orbit’, a shared and autonomous shuttle concept based on a purpose-built driverless platform. Power is provided by in-wheel electric motors, which free up space in the cabin to create a wide, flat floor like a lounge. The shuttle will be fully autonomous, with no steering wheel or option for human control. Riders will be able to hail an Orbit via a smartphone, stopping only when necessary and avoiding the delays public buses or shuttles often suffer when stopping to wait for potential passengers.

“It recently took me 20 minutes to get a rental car from Chicago airport because the bus had five scheduled stops even though there was nobody waiting, with only five people on one giant bus,” notes Fisker. “It’s another example where you want five of these small autonomous shuttles that stop only when you need them to. People will get to where they need to go more quickly and efficiently.”

Deployment is targeted at geo-fenced routes initially – such as university campuses, hospitals and airports. Eventually, the Orbit should be able to operate within areas of ‘smart cities’. The idea is to create a genuinely attractive service; there’s no reason a shuttle can’t be affordable, classy and über comfortable. Indeed, Fisker suggests that the Orbit will have a smoother ride than a Rolls-Royce. “Looking at some of these other shuttles that have come out, there are none that I would actually want to get into, or go home and tell my neighbour about,” he says. “We have created a last mile mobility choice for the type of people who would like the Fisker experience.”

He notes that “one of the largest technology companies in the US” is interested in deploying Orbit shuttles at one of its corporate campuses. “It has several buildings spread over a large campus, and Orbit shuttles could run the whole day. You could just stop it with your app and hop on board to reach the next building,” Fisker muses. “That was when we realised that there’s maybe a much bigger market for the Orbit.” There has also been interest in China, with one of Fisker Inc.’s investors eyeing the possibility of operating Orbit shuttles at certain college campuses.

The audience you can attract will be far too small if you only make passenger cars in the future… There will be a menu of other mobility options that we will either be tempted – or forced – to use

By cutting out the cost of a human driver and high fuel bills, operators could run more shuttles, more frequently, and improve the efficiency of the operation. This is true for various applications today, such as a ‘hotel hopper’ outside an airport and a shuttle that ferries students around a university campus, or employees around a business park. “Even to run just one traditional minibus seven days a week, 12 hours a day, you need about ten drivers. This is extremely expensive, which means it is less convenient because high costs prevent several buses from running,” says Fisker. “Instead of running one bus with ten drivers, you can have five autonomous shuttles.”

Such shuttles could also be used within the airport grounds itself, solving a long-standing issue of underutilisation within existing fleets. According to Nick Smith, Fund Manager at the UK-based Airport Industrial Property Unit Trust, 90% of London Gatwick Airport’s airside vehicles are stationary at any one time. This is “both hugely inefficient and demands a vast amount of space,” he explains. “A much smaller pool of electric-powered autonomous vehicles would drastically cut costs, free up land, reduce emissions and improve safety.”

Competition’s thin, for now

Despite huge interest in shared autonomous mobility across the industry and beyond, Fisker is bullishly confident in the company’s competitive position. In fact, he sees little threat from even those deemed the leaders in shared autonomous mobility services. He is quick once more to highlight the Orbit’s ‘premium’ approach as the differentiator.

“In terms of our vehicle, I see us leading what is a very unique segment. We are not deploying these shuttles randomly in a city; we’re deploying them on closed environments with set routes. I see a huge market for us and quite frankly, I don’t really see any direct competitor at this point,” he affirms. “Somebody might pop up, and I’m sure they will, but we are not going into the basic public transport approach where it is simply about getting somebody from A to B as cheaply as possible… We’ll leave it to somebody else to fight that battle.”

In April 2017, Waymo began a pilot programme in Phoenix, Arizona, that put real members of the public in the back seat of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. These ‘early riders’ have opted in, and can order a free ride from their house. Some go to the cinema, others commute to work or use it for the school run. On 31 October 2018, Waymo received the green light from California regulators to offer the service—without safety drivers—on public roads in the state. Singapore residents have also taken part in nuTonomy’s autonomous ride-hailing pilot, with free rides around the one-north business district offered to willing subjects. A similar programme is run by Silicon Valley start-up Drive.ai in Frisco, a suburb in Texas.

But Waymo, says Fisker, is “not really on our radar.” He alludes to the fact that Waymo is using traditional minivans that have not been adapted to shared autonomous mobility. The interior is not ‘social’ and space has not been optimised in the same way as the Orbit, he argues. The same can be said for nuTonomy, which has used Renault Zoe EVs, as well as the Nissan NV200 vans used by Drive.ai. “Our vehicles are purpose built, and we are tailoring them more to the premium segment,” he explains. “That’s one of the difficulties for all of these ride-hailing services; they are essentially buying a vehicle that is designed for a private individual and trying to turn them into shared vehicles – but they were never designed for that.” The Fisker Orbit is no bigger than a minivan, but passengers can stand up whilst riding and there is no need to duck on exit or entry. “You’re not going to fall over each other,” says Fisker, a criticism he levels at current ride-share vehicles.

Indeed, the company’s own research on existing programmes has found that riders often have to “crawl over each other” to get in and out of a vehicle. If passengers are in the rear two seats of a seven-seat vehicle, this also requires other passengers to get out. Owners of a three-door car will be familiar with this issue. “People don’t like having to do that, so we’ve designed a vehicle that avoids it,” he says. “It is far more convenient, and that is our advantage: we’re not trying to convert a vehicle.”

It’s all about convenience

Fully autonomous driving technology is generally presented as an opportunity to improve road safety by eliminating human error, the cause of most crashes. While this is certainly a part of the picture, the overall goal for the Orbit shuttle is to offer comfort and convenience. Fisker adds that the shuttle will always offer a smooth ride: a self-driving computer does not have mood swings. “Think about the last time you took an airport shuttle; you have to hang on to these bars and the driver doesn’t care about the comfort of the passengers,” he says. “With an autonomous vehicle, we can programme it to offer a smoother ride than a Rolls-Royce. It can accelerate, brake and steer exactly the way you programme it to, and consistently.”

We are not going into the public transport approach where it is simply about getting somebody from A to B as cheaply as possible… We’ll leave it to somebody else to fight that battle

It is an interesting time for autonomous driving technology. While more companies than ever are dabbling in the segment, consumer sentiment remains a sticking point. Recent studies have shown that many consumers like the idea of features that can be engaged or disengaged at will, but very few would ride in a vehicle without a driver. According to the 2018 Cox Automotive Evolution of Mobility Study: Autonomous Vehicles, published in August, just 16% of consumers surveyed would be comfortable letting an autonomous vehicle drive them without the option of being able to take control. Many hope that by testing autonomous vehicles in perceivably ‘low-risk’ situations where speed and driving routes are restricted, crashes will be few and far between. Acceptance – and appeal – of driverless shuttles will grow as a result.

The next few years will be crucial as investments continue to pour into pilot schemes and start-ups; those investments need to make big returns, and stakeholders will be loath to see autonomous mobility meet the same fate as some human-operated car-share programmes. For example, BMW’s DriveNow programme was recently axed in Stockholm, Sweden following dwindling demand and high costs stemming from congestion tax and parking fees. Autolib’s shared EV service in Paris has also been scrapped, with stories of chronic underutilisation. In many cases, vehicles were used as a refuge by the homeless.

There are many challenges facing the roll out of shared autonomous mobility services, but Fisker believes the opportunities are sky high with the Orbit. “There are so many possible applications, and I believe our entire transport environment is going to change in the future… Partly because it has to – we have too much congestion and pollutant emissions – but also because people simply want to have a more efficient and enjoyable transport system.”

This article appeared in the Q1 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.