In a lengthy interview, Fisker said he apprised the Department of Energy of his decision to assemble the high-priced Karma in Finland after he could not find an American facility that could handle the work. They signed off, he said, so long as he did not spend the federal loan money in Finland -- something he says the company has taken care to avoid. He said the decision, ultimately, was to help prevent his company from following the path of Solyndra, which exhausted nearly all of its loan money on a high-tech solar manufacturing plant in Freemont, California.
"If you just start doing like what Solyndra did, making a factory in a place where it was too expensive to manufacture … [you] obviously fail," he said.
By some key measures, Tesla is ahead of Fisker. More than 2,000 of its first electric car, the Tesla Roadster, are on the road, while Fisker is just starting to get its first car into showrooms. And Tesla is further along in advancing a second, lower-cost car, the Model S. While both firms boast of big dollar private investments, Tesla's vulnerabilities are more publicly visible through its SEC filings, in contrast to the privately held Fisker.
Chelsea Sexton, a 20-year veteran of the electric car movement and an outspoken advocate for alternative fuel vehicles, said she can plainly see the risks, even though her husband works for Tesla.
"None of us with any experience in the industry think there's any sort of guarantee they'll make it," Sexton said of Tesla. "It looks pretty good right now, they're building out their plant, things seem to be on track, so we're all encouraged. But you know, we watched GM and Chrysler go bankrupt."
Energy Department officials said such loans, by their nature, are risky because the department is financing innovative, potentially game-changing technologies that could deliver long-term benefits. They said neither firm has missed a loan payment, or sought help from the department to restructure their lending agreements.
"Two years ago, critics said we shouldn't be investing in American auto manufacturing at all because the industry wouldn't survive," said Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman. "They were wrong then and they're wrong today. From well-established names like Ford to innovative startups like Tesla and Fisker, America's auto industry is being reinvented. Continuing this turnaround demands more innovation, not defeatism. While supporting innovative technologies always carries a degree of risk, these investments deliver long-term benefits."
Yet an audit this year by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized the Energy Department for not keeping close enough tabs on its fleet of auto loans -- including those to Fisker and Tesla -- to ensure they meet benchmarks. The funding was issued under the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, one piece of a giant umbrella of DOE loans and loan guarantees going out the door.
"DOE cannot be assured that the projects are on track to deliver the vehicles as agreed," said the GAO report examining the department's ATVM program. "It also means that U.S. taxpayers do not know whether they are getting what they paid for through the loans."
Tesla and Fisker stand in rare company in securing the ATVM loans. To date, records show, more than 95 percent of applicants are still awaiting approval or have been rejected from the loan pool.
Between them, Fisker, at $529 million, and Tesla, at $465 million, have secured nearly $1 billion to jump-start production of their cars. Combined, the companies have already drawn down more than $300 million, Federal Financing Bank records show.
Industry watchers question whether the Department of Energy had the auto industry know-how to make an informed choice, and they worry that another government-backed failure could damage the very industry the program intended to help.
"I think we'll absolutely end up having our version of Solyndra in the transport world based on the way the DOE has, and seems to still be executing its loan program without enough veteran diligence in the process," Sexton said.
The majority of the DOE funding for Fisker is earmarked for the company to develop a less costly, mass market sedan, called Project Nina. Energy officials issued the loans for a car that, even two years later, has not been publicly revealed.
"A half billion dollars for a car that no one has seen a picture of, in the Fisker Nina, was a bit more surprising to people," Sexton said.
Fisker said the mass market car Nina has been designed and built, but it remains under wraps to maintain a competitive edge.