It can't have been a particular easy 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show for Coda Autmotive's newly minted interim CEO, Steven "Mac" Heller.
Just one day before Coda hosted a reception at its new "Zen meets Tech" display booth at the greenest of all U.S. auto shows, the startup electric car company announced it would delay the launch of its 2011 Coda Sedan from next month to the third quarter of 2011, meaning next summer at the earliest.
And that announcement came just a week after the resignations of both the firm's senior vice president of sales & marketing and the previous CEO.
Heller had been co-chairman of the Coda board of directors, so he knew the company. He previously worked at investment bank Goldman Sachs, where he was co-head of its investment banking division and its worldwide head of mergers and acquisitions.
By the time we sat down with Heller to dig into what's really going on at Coda, he'd undoubtedly heard all the questions before. He was guarded, as we expected, but affable and more or less straightforward.
2011 Coda Sedan electric car, New York City, September 2010
Why the delay in delivering the car, and why was it announced so late?
Mac Heller: We did it to build a couple of four-to-six-week buffer zones into our manufacturing approval process, which lets us make quality adjustments to the tooling and load balancing on the production line that builds the "gliders" in China.
The design is frozen, for anything that's customer-facing, but minor adjustments can be made to assembly processes and any components affected by them.
We had some time built into the launch schedule to let us pause and reflect on the process. If you have 100 stations, you need to coordinate timing among then. That turned out not to be enough time; we needed more. So that's what we're doing.
screen capture from promotional video for 2010 Coda Sedan electric car, released June 2010
At $44,000, the Coda Sedan is more than $11,000 pricier than the 2011 Nissan Leaf at $32,780. Your delay means you're no longer launching your cars at the same time, so how do you expect to compete with Nissan?
MH: First, we think the demand for battery-electric cars will exceed the supply in the early phases. We anticipate substantial demand from both fleets and consumers. But we think there'll be a fast ramp-up of sophistication among electric-car buyers.
Our consumers prefer to buy an electric car from a company that's all about electric cars, not a company that has one electric model in a range of gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
Early buyers are skeptical about incumbent brands. They're part of a movement, and they see us as an ally and an enabler in reaching their goal of a gasoline-free life.
Second, as we've said before, our car has a bigger lihtium-ion battery pack and quicker onboard charging.
We'll provide a real-world range of 120 miles, and our active thermal management system will make that range much more predictable. Our 6.6-kilowatt charger means you can recharge the Coda twice as fast, and we offer a compact sedan with a full trunk.
Coda is ignoring established third-party dealers and selling direct to consumers, at least in the few states like California where it's legal. Why are you doing that, and what do you do where that's illegal?
MH: Consumers don't like the car-buying experience from traditional automakers.
They don't like the haggling, and they don't like having the learning process (online) physically separated from purchasing.
We try to provide as much of the process online as possible, and keep it completely transparent. Our consumers will absolutely see the difference in the buying and owning experience with a Coda.
As for areas beyond California, we will work state-by-state to fit our process into local regulatory regimes. But we'll keep it simple, and completely transparent.
cutaway drawing of 2011 Coda Sedan electric car
How many consumers have put down deposits on Coda Sedans to date?
MH: Many. [long pause]
We're not ready to discuss that number quite yet, but we will soon.
What qualities are you looking for in Coda's next CEO?
MH: He or she has to be able to manage a large, complex manufacturing organization in a rapidly changing industry. Has to have broad administration and marketing experience, along with administering both global and local supply chains.
We're looking nationally and internationally, since there are many markets thirsty for electric vehicles. Our first priority is to get this car on the road, and then Coda 2.0 will be an electric car built from the ground up. Coda is still at an early stage.