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Coda Automotive, a startup based in Santa Monica, CA, is attempting to be one of the first companies to sell a highway-capable electric sedan to the general public in the United States. The car will have a range of 100 miles and will cost $45,000, although federal and state government incentives will bring the cost down to the mid-$30,000 range. However, the new company will quickly face competition from more established automakers for what analysts say will be a small market for electric vehicles–at least until prices come down.

The car will be built by the Chinese automaker Hafei, which makes about 200,000 vehicles a year. The electric sedan is a version of one that Hafei already makes, but it’s modified to use an electric motor and batteries instead of a gas engine.

Coda is racing against several large and small automakers that are developing electric cars of their own and plan to start selling them to commercial and government customers for evaluation as soon as next year, with sales to the general public beginning in 2011 or 2012. Coda plans to distribute 300 evaluation vehicles in the summer of 2010 but will keep this test period short to beat others to market. It plans to start selling the sedan to the general public in the fall of 2010 and to deliver 2,700 cars that year.

In addition to trying to bring the car to market ahead of its competition, Coda hopes to distinguish itself with its battery system, which it developed in cooperation with Tianjin Lishen, a major lithium-ion battery maker based in China, and other companies that specialize in different aspects of the battery system, such as the electronic controls. Kevin Czinger, Coda’s president and CEO, says that the company jointly owns the factory that makes the battery packs, which will help Coda ensure a steady supply of batteries. This is also true for the Japanese automakers Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan, but he says that his company is ramping up production for electric vehicles faster. By the end of the year, the company’s battery factory will be able to produce 20,000 packs a year. “The scale and speed with which we’re doing it are very different than the Japanese,” Czinger says. “The ownership of mass manufacturing of the battery system distinguishes us from everybody else.”

Czinger says that if Coda can be the first to market with a popular mass-produced electric vehicle, it will sell enough cars to pave the way for a second-generation car that is less expensive and has a longer driving range. He says that the next car will be lighter and more aerodynamic, which, along with having improved battery technology, will make it possible to use fewer batteries while getting a 150-mile range. The next car could also cost as little as $25,000, without subsidies, Czinger says. The first generation will need to be a second vehicle for a household, because of its limited range. A network of fast-charging stations will be crucial to expanding the car’s usefulness, he says. This, however, would require people to stop about every 100 miles for an eight-minute recharge. (Typically, fast charging only recharges the battery 60 to 80 percent.) The car will not be compatible with a system of battery swap stations, proposed by companies such as Better Place, which would allow people to exchange a depleted pack with a charged one in a couple of minutes.

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Credit: Coda Automotive

Tagged: Business, Energy, electric cars, battery, electric vehicle, lithium-ion, transportation, lithium iron phosphate

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