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A Startup’s Electric Sedan May Be First on the Road

A Chinese-built electric sedan could be the first on sale in the United States, but it will quickly face competition.
June 19, 2009

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.

Electric avenue: A Chinese-built electric car due to go on sale in the United States next year.

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.

Coda’s first battery packs will store about 34 kilowatt-hours of electricity and will be made up of 728 battery cells with lithium iron phosphate battery electrodes, which are known to be safer than conventional lithium-ion electrodes. (Chrysler and BYD, another Chinese automaker, plan to use the same chemistry as Coda.) The cells are packaged inside rigid metal containers, which could prove more durable than the flexible pouches being used in battery packs being developed for electrically driven cars by GM and Chrysler, according to Vince Yavoli, president of one of Coda’s partners, Yardney Technical Products, based in Pawcatuck, CT. Czinger says that the packs can be completely charged and discharged at least 1,500 times, and will come with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

The first battery cells and packs will be built in China, but Coda and Yardney have applied for funds from this year’s federal stimulus package to build a battery factory in the United States. Yardney is a longtime battery supplier to the U.S. military, and the maker of the batteries that power the Mars rovers. Yavoli says that the company has developed proprietary electrolyte additives that can improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries at extreme temperatures for future versions of the battery pack. Czinger says that this and other enhancements could help increase the number of cycles that the battery will last.

However, some experts are skeptical that Coda will be a success. If the Coda sedan sells for $35,000 after government incentives, that’s still $15,000 more than a comparable gas-powered sedan. According to market-research firm Synovate, very few people are willing to spend more than $6,000 more than a conventional vehicle for an electric car, even if the car could save thousands more in reduced maintenance and fuel costs. (Coda claims that the car will save about $10,000 in five years.) Tim Englehart, vice president at Synovate, estimates that the market for cars with more than this premium is “in this economy, maybe, if you’re lucky, a couple of hundred.”

What’s more, Englehart says, “by the time it comes out, there’s going to be quite a lot of competition out there.” Major companies such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru have announced plans for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, which use little to no gasoline for daily commuting. GM’s Volt plug-in hybrid, for example, is slated to go on sale in November 2010. Smaller companies such as Tesla Motors, which already makes an electric sports car, and Fisker Automotive will also begin offering luxury electrically powered sedans soon, with Fisker’s plug-in hybrid due out later this year. These luxury electric vehicles may do better than Coda’s sedan, because their price should be closer to that of similar conventional luxury vehicles, Englehart says. Alternatively, many customers may be drawn to Toyota’s gas-electric hybrid, which uses very little gasoline and sells for about $20,000, says Menahem Anderman, an automotive battery industry analyst. Englehart says that Coda could have a better chance at success if it sells its battery packs to established car makers, or sells its cars under the name of another, more recognized, automaker.

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