CODA electric cars, charging ahead

CODA sedan

No one said it would be easy for CODA Automotive, the California-based startup that makes all-electric cars and battery systems.

Two months ago, CODA delayed the introduction of its first car and said that its dynamic chief executive,  Kevin Czinger, was stepping down. Even before then, pundits wondered whether the company could survive (here and here).

When, after all, was the last time a U.S.-based startup broke into the capital-intensive automobile industry?

But, while CODA has a tough road ahead, it turns out that some smart money is betting on the privately-held firm: Last week, CODA announced that it raised another $76 million and brought in two new venture investors, Harbinger Capital Partners and Riverstone Holdings. Previous investors include Hank Paulson, the former treasury secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs; Thomas “Mack” McLarty, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, whose family owns auto dealerships; and John Bryson, the former CEO of Edison International.

The company has now raised about $200 million, and hopes to raise another $50 million soon, says Steven “Mac” Heller, an investor, co-chairman of the board and now the company’s interim CEO. Heller spoke today (on a panel with GE’s Jeff Immelt) at the Brookings Institution, and we sat down afterward to talk about CODA. [click to continue…]

Electric cars: all systems go

Despite the disappointments of Copenhagen, despite the inaction on climate-change regulation in Congress, despite the global recession, the momentum behind electric cars keeps building.

Yesterday, Better Place, the Silicon Valley-based electric car startup, raised $350 million in financing—the biggest clean tech investment ever, the company said, and a validation of a business model that has been scoffed at by the auto industry. The investment round, led by HSBC, values Better Place, which has yet to put a car on the road, at $1.25 billion.

“Electric vehicles are, at this point, inevitable,” said Jason Wolf, vice president of Better Place. “We’ve broken through, and there’s no turning back.”

Big automakers, meanwhile, are pushing forward with their electric offerings, as executives from Nissan and Ford affirmed yesterday during a “Green Car Summit” held at the U.S. Capitol.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Nissan has been taking its all-electric Leaf, which will be introduced next fall, on a 24-city U.S. tour.  “The market is ready,” said Scott Becker, senior vice president of Nissan North America. “We’ve had an incredible reaction from consumers.” He said more than 38,000 people have signed up to get more information about the car.

“This is going to be a vehicle designed and made for the mass market,” Becker said. The car will have a range of about 100 miles before needing a new charge, good enough to meet the needs of 90% of U.S. drivers.

Lots of forces will bring an array of new electric cars to market in 2010 and 2011–technological improvements in batteries, concerns about climate change (despite legislative foot-dragging), worries about the U.S.’s dependence on imported oil and, most of all, the increasingly attractive economics around electric cars, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Having said that,  significant disagreements remain even among electric-car advocates about how fast the new technology will be adopted, and what form it will take. Will gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion dominate, or will the market shift to plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt or all-electrics like the Leaf? Will electric cars be a niche business, a mainstream product or–maybe, just maybe–will they come to dominate? Or are they being overhyped? Certainly, there’s no shortage of skepticism out there, particularly from auto-industry incumbents.

“Yes, you will have the intellectual guys who drive electric vehicles,” scoffed Stefan Jacoby, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, who spoke at the “green car” event. But, he argued, mass-market consumers won’t pay a premium for electric cars and they don’t want to deal with the hassle of charging their car batteries.

When Jason Wolf of Better Place opined that 50% of new car sales could be electric by 2020, Jacoby shot back: “That’s totally impossible. We need to be realistic.”

Still, Better Place has made more progress in the last couple of years–during a global economic meltdown–than most people would have expected. It’s got the support of the governments of Israel and Denmark for widespread rollouts, which require

Renault Fluence ZE

Renault Fluence ZE

building charging stations as well as battery-switching operations throughout those two countries. (The Better Place model envisions battery switches for long trips.) It’s got a commitment from Renault build 100,000 electric cars, a new model known as the Fluence ZE (for zero emissions, a car that I wrote about here.) And yesterday’s round of Series B funding brings in new investors including HSBC, Morgan Stanley Investment Management, and Lazard Asset Management. Charles Stonehill, Better Place’s CFO, wrote on the company’s blog:

Our investors represent some of the largest financial institutions in the world, employing exceptionally thorough due diligence processes that are commensurate with the size of investment.

Given Renault’s commitment and the infusion of equity, don’t be surprised if the next country where Better Place rolls out its cars and its unique business model is France. Higher gasoline prices in Europe make Better Place a better business there.

Which brings us to the economics. While you’ll get arguments about the specific numbers, most people who have looked at electric cars will tell you that as battery costs come down, electric-powered engines are more efficient and less expensive to operate that gas-powered ones. Better Place’s Wolf says the cost per mile of fueling an electric car is two to three cents for the electricity, plus another five to six cents for the battery when amortized over the life of the car. Figure a dime a mile. In the U.S., with gasoline priced at $3, powering a car with gas costs 12-14 cents a mile. In Europe, where drivers pay $6 to $8 per gallon of gas, you can double that. The point is, there’s enough money to be made so that carmakers and consumers can both do well as electrics roll out, even though the upfront costs of an electric car are higher.

Not surprisingly, the start-up companies who are building only electric cars expect the technology to be embraced relatively quickly and widely. Established automakers, even those committed to electrics, are more cautious.

“We view this as a revolutionary journey,” said Nancy Gioia, director of global electrification at Ford Motor. Evolution might be more like it: By 2020, she said, Ford expects that between 10 and 25% of its new car sales will be electric. The bulk of those, she added, will be hybrids like the Fusion. With a hybrid, a gasoline engine can be used to overcome what the industry calls “range anxiety”–the driver’s worry that a battery could run out on long trips.

But Kevin Czinger, the dynamic CEO of CODA Automotive (who will be speaking at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green), proudly says that his company will be “100 percent independent of the oil industry.” CODA intends to start small, selling cars only in California beginning later this year, but Czinger is counting on market dynamics to both improve the product and drive sales.

“Do I think I can sell 1,000 high quality electric cars in California? Absolutely,” he said. That will signal markets that the business is real. “Do I know what the market will do with that signal? No. But market forces should work to drive down costs and drive up performance.”

He’s got a point. You never know what will happen with a disruptive technology comes along. When is the last time you bought a CD? Or a a new landline phone?

Says Czinger: “We envision an affordable electric car in every American garage.”

An (almost) affordable electric car

The other day, I took a spin around your nation’s capital in what is being touted as the first affordable electric car that will find its way onto America’s roads.

Not, it’s not the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, an import from BYD or Tata or a down-scaled Tesla. It’s the Coda, the product of a southern California startup with an unusual business model and some big-name investors.

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My chauffeur was Kevin Czinger, Coda’s hard-charging CEO (no pun intended), about whom more in a moment. Czinger wants to build Coda Automotive into an American car maker that looks more like Apple or Dell than GM, Ford or Chrysler.

Coda’s impressive array of backers includes Hank Paulson, the former treasury secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs; Thomas “Mack” McLarty, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, whose family owns auto dealerships; John Bryson, the former CEO of Edison International; and Tom Steyer, the well-respected founder of Farallon Capital Management. [click to continue…]

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.

William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
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Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue…]