Fisker Inc. teased its $40K electric SUV while announcing that a former VW exec with experience in the South is heading up site selection for a new U.S. plant.

Georgia is one of 11 states Fisker Inc. is considering for a U.S. factory the company says will play a role in bringing an affordable electric sport-utility vehicle to market by 2021. 

Other Southeastern states including Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee are also competing for the investment, which executives say could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars within a few short years. 

Fisker Inc. published the states in a news release teasing the design and announcing the hiring of Don Jackson, a former Toyota and Volkswagen executive with experience at latter’s plant in the Chattanooga, Tenn., to lead its manufacturing strategy, including site selection. 

The company is conducting a nationwide site search with the help of accounting firm EY and is accepting proposals from states through Monday. The two or three final contenders could be revealed within a few weeks. 

Fisker seeks a “brownfield” site with an existing building — not necessarily an automotive factory, but something with the requisite space and connectivity. 

“We would like to get into something that has infrastructure, roads, electricity and all these things so we can move a little bit faster, as our startup production is set for second half of 2021,” Henrik Fisker, the former BMW and Aston Martin vehicle designer spearheading the project, told Global Atlanta by phone. 

This would be the second stab at making EVs for the electric car pioneer, who brought the Karma sedan priced in the six figures to market in 2011, a year ahead of rival Tesla Motors’ Model S. 

Tesla, though, has since soared to staggering market valuations based on its promise of bring electrification to the masses, even if outspoken CEO Elon Musk has struggled to ramp up manufacturing for its long-awaited $35,000 Model 3 sedan. 

Last week, Tesla finally began selling the Model 3 at that base, while also unveiling the Model Y crossover SUV it plans to begin selling next year at $39,000. 

Fisker Inc. has to compete with Tesla while overcoming its founder’s own checkered history. Fisker Automotive, Mr. Fisker’s initial venture, eventually filed for bankruptcy after taking $192 million in U.S. Department of Energy loans. Only $52 million was paid back and the company’s assets were acquired by Chinese auto parts firm Wanxiang.   

In the interview, Mr. Fisker said things are different now than in the sluggish economy of the post-recession era of 2009. 

“It was a very immature electric vehicle industry at that time,” he said.

Now, most major auto makers are now introducing electric models or plug-in hybrids, with some like Volvo pledging to phase out gas-only options altogether

Yet he also believes it’s still early enough in the electric game that an upstart can challenge major players — as long it uses shrewd partnerships to reduce costs.

That’s the gist of what Mr. Fisker vaguely called a new, “lean business model”: striking business deals to share components and supply chains with large companies, even while enjoying the cost advantages of a startup. 

“We are so early still in electrification that it’s not necessarily the case that large car makers have any advantage. I would in fact say they probably have a disadvantage because they have to carry the overhead and the burden of their current gasoline segment,” he said. 

Mr. Fisker does plan to introduce another high-end sedan, the EMotion, which he unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018. But his main focus is building three more affordable models on the same platform, including a sub-$40,000 all-electric SUV that with the $7,500 federal tax incentive (good for the first 200,000 vehicles sold) would be cheaper than the average cost of a new gas-powered vehicle. 

Then, of course, there’s his battery technology. The company is what he calls a “flexible solid-state battery” that he claims would dramatically reduce charge times and extend ranges versus lithium-ion batteries. The eventual goal is inductive charging, where the car would charge in minutes while parked on a mat, rather than plugging into a standard outlet all night, he said. 

While that technology is fine tuned, the first Fisker Inc. SUVs will operate with industry-standard batteries from a proven (also confidential) industry player to get early models rolling. 

The EMotion shown at CES reportedly boasted a battery from Korea’s LG Chem, though Mr. Fisker would not confirm which company would supply his initial run at the U.S. plant. SK Innovation, also from Korea, recently broke ground in Georgia on a massive electric car battery plant that at $1.67 billion is set to become the state’s largest-ever foreign investment. 

Over the long haul, Fisker aims to introduce its proprietary battery technology into its own models and potentially to a select number of partners and investors, perhaps through a joint-venture arrangement. 

“We are not even sure we really want to be a battery manufacturer, per se,” he said. 

Caterpillar Inc.’s private-equity arm is among the companies that have invested in the solid-state technology. Lab tests are ongoing, but in the meantime, Mr. Fisker seems confident that armed with the lessons of the past, he can succeed where he and others have failed, even with today’s available technologies. 

While insisting he has “no favorites” among states at the moment, Mr. Fisker said the Southeast U.S. offers a broad base of current auto suppliers, as well as proximity to export markets, especially in Europe. Many states also include the all-important workforce training programs that Fisker Inc. will lean on as it builds out what promises to be a high-tech factory floor. 

He did mention one advantage that Georgia has over all the other competitors: Atlanta’s airport.

Ultimately, though, the company is seeking the best overall fit, and each place has its charms, Mr. Fisker said. The full slate of contenders includes California, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

“This is a long-term relationship. It’s something where we’re going to go in and hopefully be there for much more than even 10 years, because once you start investing hundreds of millions, hiring thousands of people, that’s a huge decision. You want to get into a state where you want to stay,” Mr. Fisker said. 

A Georgia Department of Economic Development spokesperson said the department does not comment on active projects but offered the following statement after being told that Mr. Fisker spoke highly of Georgia and the region: 

“We are excited any time a respected company such as Fisker speaks highly of our state. We appreciate Mr. Fisker’s comments, and feel the same way about them.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...