I remember back to the AltCar Expo ride-and-drive in 2011, and a group of us reporters gathered at the Coda display, eager to finally drive the EV sedan – albeit around one city block – after two years of backseat ridealongs. I asked the Coda spokesperson about the series of production delays and spec changes, while trying to nail down the endlessly dangled carrot of a launch date. The spokesperson responded in a near fit of pique that “everything was going according to plan and the company is on track for a December release date and your questions exasperate me.”
Well, I thought then, we’ll take Coda at its word, again. The company finally declared bankruptcy yesterday, and it wasn’t all surprising to anyone. Yeah, it’s easy to say, “I told you so,” especially in the world of electric vehicle manufacturing from independent automakers such as Coda. Failures happen. This is still the Wild Wild West of electric vehicles, after all.
But Coda’s failure is especially noteworthy, in light of the four-year media machine that told us, again and again, that the company was real, even as we saw it coming. We saw it coming with the abrupt management team changes in the last five years. We saw it coming when they traded their hip brick-and-glass Santa Monica address for a non-descript L.A. warehouse locale next to the freeway and then laid off 15% of its staff.
So what is the lesson with Coda? The company looked for, and got, a special pass when it didn’t deserve one. The amount of media heaped on Coda was 10 times greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, a lot of that media was rightfully skeptical, but most of it was deferential. I admit that I fed that media machine.
When it comes to green initiatives and “changing the world,” it’s a lot easier to skip through the land of good intentions without a harder look at the business model – or the product. But the product wasn’t very good. And it cost nearly $40,000.
The clunky Coda sedan body was built in China, which does a disservice to the models coming out of China today. This one screamed Chinese-made from the Nineties. Coda tried to differentiate itself in the market with a more advanced battery pack that achieved “best-in-class” driving range of 125 miles per charge, even though it hadn’t sold a vehicle. The final EPA rating came in at a more modest 88 miles per charge.
All this was wrapped up in a media blitzkrieg, paid for with venture capital money, with slick displays at the auto shows and big ad-agency creative that played the hug-me environmental angle to the hilt. Coda got a lot of press, but made sure to pounce on any news write up with a negative slant. This was all done without a product. It felt like the emperor was parading past without any clothes.
In other mainstream industries, a business plan and a product would get the proper scrutiny. But the green tech world is still so new and evolving, it’s easy to buy into promises. We want to believe, but that result is a staggering amount of press devoted to products that never see the light of day. It’s our job as journalists to filter the real from the baloney and never lose our skepticism. After Coda, we’ll be a little more cautious.