Coda Found China Harder to Work With Than Anticipated but Confirms Q4 Launch Date

By · July 01, 2011

Sean Blankenship

Coda's Sean Blankenship.

Issues with its Chinese partners have apparently been holding up the start of production of Coda Automotive’s pure electric sedans. I met with Sean Blankenship, Coda’s vice president of automotive marketing, a few days ago at Coda’s headquarters in Santa Monica, in the building that previously housed Google.

I asked if Coda was confident it would meet its latest deadline—the fourth quarter of this year—to launch its electric vehicle. (Coda has missed several other launch dates.)

Yes, Coda was confident, he said, adding, “You know that when you have a joint venture in China, it is a learning experience. We have learned a lot and I think we work better with our partners."

Coda is producing batteries in China through a joint venture with Tianjin Lishen, a battery maker in northeast China. It also has a contractual relationship with Hafei Motors to produce the body (or “glider”) of its car. I asked if the problems had been with Lishen or with Hafei. Both, said Blankenship.

That may be one reason why, in January, Coda brought in Phil Murtaugh as its new CEO. Murtaugh is an Old China Hand. He has extensive experience negotiating and working with Chinese companies. He worked for GM in China for several decades, including serving as CEO of GM China from 2000 to 2005. GM partners with SAIC in China in numerous ventures.

Murtaugh also headed up Chrysler’s operations in Asia for a short time. He has been spending at least half his time in China, according to Coda. Good thing he still has a place in Shanghai (I assume).

Coda plans to bring the glider and battery over to the U.S. separately, said Blankenship. He said the sedan will be assembled in the San Francisco Bay Area port of Benicia by Amports, a Jacksonville, FL based auto processing company.

The cars will be sold through a “multi-channel” set-up, said Blankenship. In August, Coda will open the first company store in a mall in Los Angeles. It will have interactive displays on electric vehicles, a Coda battery, and other features aimed at educating people about electric vehicles and Coda’s philosophy. The store will also have half a dozen Coda EVs to test drive, said Blankenship. Coda aims to have five stores nationwide in the next 12 months, he said. The next store will be in San Francisco.

Coda Sedan

Sales, delivery, and service of the EVs will be through traditional dealerships. “They are pretty good at selling and servicing vehicles,” said Blankenship. He would not reveal names, but said Coda is in discussion with dealers right now.

Coda is sticking with its sales estimate of 14,000 units in the first full operational year. Fleet sales will be first, followed by consumer sales, he said.
Will we see Coda sedans on our streets by the end of this year, or are we in for another disappointment? The company has had a lot of executive churn. But the people at Coda now are operational, get-things-done types rather than start-up, raise-money types. That is a good sign.

Even if the sedan launches on time, however, Coda will be entering the market at a time when the competition is heating up. Ford will have an EV out next year, more LEAFs will be available, and other EVs will making their way to market, as well.

Coda still touts its battery—which it claims has a better range than competitors—as its strength. But it only adds about 20 miles to the range of its competitors. I don’t think that will be enough to overcome range anxiety. And Coda’s price is pretty high at $44,900 before various federal and state rebates. The jury is still out.

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