Where Did All the Coda EV’s Go?

Ever wonder where the 100+ electric vehicles that Coda delivered ended up? Well, I found five of them in a warehouse in Davis, California. Efficient Drivetrains Inc., a company with plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and continuously variable transmission technology bought five of the Coda all-electric sedans for a China-related project. Full disclosure: I do some business development work for EDI.

EDI is doing some other interesting China-related stuff as I discovered when I visited a few weeks ago. It seems all manner of Chinese companies and even research institutes are looking to benefit from the government’s electric vehicle policy. As I discuss in a blog I’ll post after this one, however, some elements of that policy are not very well-thought out.

But I digress. EDI’s warehouse is filled with vehicles in various stages of having some form of electric drivetrain or CVT installed. Imagine my surprise to see some familiar faces on the lifts! EDI has been asked by the Dongguan Research Institute to produce some pure electric vehicles that also have CVTs. This research institute, contained within one of Dongguan’s many universities, is surely owned by the local government.

EDI procured the five Coda’s for this project. Why? “They are cheap,” said Andy Frank, EDI founder and chief technical officer. Frank explained that the Institute wants an EV that is inexpensive but also shows good performance (doesn’t everyone?). It “wants to design something different than the conventional EV manufacturer,” said Frank. “They have to show some uniqueness.”

Pure electric vehicles aren’t the ideal application for CVTs, admitted the engineers at EDI. A CVT allows a car to change gears without steps, and electric vehicles do that anyway, I believe…. But the Research Institute is the customer, so EDI will install a CVT in the Coda sedans’ pure electric drive, which will add cost. EDI has a cost-cutting strategy, however: Source parts from China.

Coda sourced most of the components for original EVs from multinational suppliers. Think UQM motors and Borg Warner transmissions. EDI is replacing those high-cost components with less-expensive components sourced in China. EDI will then add its secret sauce — software and a management system that will make all the parts work together in a superior way.

The replacement CVT is from Hunan Jianglu Rongda.Vehicle Transmission Co. On the company’s website is a Chinese saying that, according to Rongda’s English translation says: “Ocean holds precipitation; acceptance makes greatness.” A better translation might be “The ocean accepts a hundred rivers, and that makes it great.” It is a saying that urges tolerance for diversity because diversity produces greatness. I guess that is meant to promote acceptance for a CVT. And it is a play on the characters in Rongda’s name.

Rongda is China’s only volume CVT manufacturer. Since its CVT can be bought off the shelf, EDI is using one in the prototype. How good are the Rongda CVTs? “We don’t really know; we have to build one and test,” said Frank. “In order to get real economics (in fuel economy) we (will) have to design a special CVT for this application,” he added. If the vehicle goes into volume production, EDI will design a CVT specifically for the vehicle, either on its own or with Rongda, said Frank.

The motor will come from Beijing-based Jing-Jin Electric. The company, founded by a General Motors China alum, supplied motors to the ill-fated Fisker Karma. It produces motors of all sizes for electric vehicles, said Frank. And its motors may show up in the Fisker-based car that Wanxiang produces.

Another interesting project in the EDI garage was a Ford F550 truck that is a PHEV with exportable power being produced for Pacific Gas & Electric. In a blog last year, I talked about how exportable power is what PG&E, one of the largest utilities in the U.S., really wants in its PHEV trucks. It can use that power, said Dave Meisel, director of transportation for PG&E, to light up a neighborhood while it does repairs, or during emergencies such as hurricanes when power has been lost.

I talked with Meisel recently about the PHEV that EDI is producing for PG&E. It has exportable power, it seems, and a lot of it. PG&E will test it soon. Why has EDI apparently been able to achieve levels of exportable power that others haven’t, I asked Meisel? “It is technology related,” he said. “EDI’s software and onboard management system has done a really good job.” I guess we will know if that proves true in a few weeks as PG&E is planning to test the EDI truck then.

China could certainly benefit from some exportable power. Although the brown-outs that were common when I lived in China in 1984, and even when I was there in the early 1990’s, they aren’t so common now. The grid in China is strained, however. Imagine if a fleet of trucks could serve as power plant in a pinch.

So that’s what I saw during my EDI visit. I’m still laughing at the Coda sedans. Never thought I would run into them in such a place. And they’re going home! The body came from China, after all, and now the components will, too. Is the fact that such disparate entities – such as a research institute — are looking into producing electric vehicles good news for China? Or is it a waste of resources? Will it produce innovation that doesn’t emerge from the big automakers? That is what China is hoping. The government thinks that by giving non-automotive entities licenses to produce EVs, a Chinese Tesla could emerge. That seems a stretch. But there may be a Chinese Elon Musk out there.

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