Minnows making waves in auto tech

Small players sounding off among the emerging technology assessed by Eric Volkman.

As far as automakers are concerned, it’s the ‘Big Guys’ that dominate the conversation when the topic is the connected car. We’ve heard plenty about Cadillac’s Super Cruise, for example, or the numerous bells and whistles inside a Tesla. Of course, the world of auto manufacturers is much broader than this, with many small underdog makers trying to carve out some, any market share.

One of them is Fisker. Niche car enthusiasts will remember the name for its spectacular belly-flop, the Fisker Karma. In spite of hefty funding, the electric-powered Karma was victimised by the bankruptcy of its battery supplier and never fulfilled its promise. Its key assets were subsequently bought by China’s Wanxiang Group, which has revived the Karma; more on this in a moment.

Reborn as Fisker Inc., the company has wiped the design slate clean for its new effort, the EMotion. It’s a fully reimagined vehicle, upgraded and updated to ride the cutting edge. It made a high-profile debut at the 2018 CES show, a sleek and very appealing luxury saloon bodied car. It will use efficient solid-state batteries and boast a spacious interior that has three video screens to display a raft of entertainment, communication and diagnostic functionalities to its passengers. Despite its flashy coming-out at CES, EMotion is still a work in progress. Company founder Henrik Fisker says the first deliveries of the vehicle will take place in 2020. It’ll be worth the wait, according to him because it will feature “the world’s longest electric range (well over 400 miles on a single charge), fast charging, a new user interface, high performance and plenty of luxurious interior space.” That will certainly be an improvement on the original Karma’s feeble 32-mile effort. The company is working with current self-driving technology to get the car to what Fisker describes as “Level 4 with some constraints”.

Meanwhile, the Karma lives to see another day. Wanxiang’s Karma Automotive, the company that ultimately gained control of the brand, has updated and rechristened it. Now called the Revero it’s readily identifiable as Karma’s successor. The new company kept Fisker’s styling; a smart move considering he’s known as one of the top vehicle designers of our age. Another clever decision that should “move the metal” is the inclusion a feature-packed infotainment system which, despite its sophistication, appears to be very cleanly designed and intuitive. “If you like a 200-page supplement to the owner’s manual to describe your infotainment system,” Karma cheekily advises, “look elsewhere.”

Another recognisable name in the alt-auto sphere is Faraday Future, which is pegging its hopes on the crossover SUV segment. The company will apparently make available by the end of this year its long-awaited FF 91 SUV, a fully electric crossover with a gutsy engine – the vehicle goes from 0-to-60mph in 2.4 seconds, Faraday claims. The unavoidable centrepiece of the cockpit will be a massive tablet-like touchscreen and that’s only one of the craft’s monitors. The rear-view mirror isn’t a mirror at all, rather another screen fed by cameras mounted where the side mirrors usually sit. The software at the heart of the FF 91 will feature a connectivity suite, through which owners can remotely summon the vehicle.

The smaller automakers aren’t only about family saloons and SUVs. Nikola, an ambitious company based in Utah, aims to steal a march on Tesla by getting advanced-system trucks onto American roads soon. The trucks the company is developing will house many of its controls in a large dashboard touchscreen. This interface is to control and display a wide range of the vehicle’s functions and diagnostics. It’s also where drivers will access the company’s Nikola Shipments app; proprietary software that provides details of all shipments available along a chosen route, plus the locations of Nikola’s service centres and, anticipated, hydrogen refuelling stations. The future for Nikola is automated. The vehicles under development, which are scheduled to come to market in 2021, should boast Level 5 functionality… with an asterisk. “We have routes that are pre-scanned and easy to drive in autonomy mode,” says company CEO Trevor Milton. “The trucks drive pre-defined routes making it easier and safer.”

Another up-and-comer vying for truck glory is Los Angeles-based Thor Trucks. The company, which bills itself as a “transportation lab,” has developed its own truck, an electric called the ET-One. Thor keeps costs manageable by cobbling together its vehicles from off-the-shelf parts made by companies such as Navistar and Dana. The goal here is utility, not technological mastery – the company has no plans to shoot for autonomous driving. Instead their strategy is to put a powerful electric on the market, emphasising a “green” vehicle that, in the long run, can save customers money over traditional diesel models.

Will any of these vehicles be a common sight on our roads anytime soon? As they’re mostly niche players, probably not but you never know… after all, Tesla was a small, wonky specialist only ten years ago and look at it now.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *