Where They Are Now

Small step or giant leap?

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Kevin Czinger ’81, ’87JD, who used to jump cars—that's jump over cars—as an undergrad, visited the Yale campus for a clean energy conference in April. View full image

Kevin Czinger ’81,’87JD, is president and CEO of CODA Automotive, a start-up company set to introduce a fully electric car in California late this year. David Zax ’06 met up with Czinger recently at Yorkside Pizza, where photos of the former All-Ivy linebacker hang on the walls. “Czinger was the toughest kid to play football at Yale in my 32 years as head coach,” wrote Carmen Cozza in his memoir, True Blue. “He was also the most unusual personality, probably the outstanding overachiever, maybe the brightest student, and definitely the scariest individual.” Czinger was an executive, an investment banker, and a teacher before joining CODA.

Y: I’m a bit intimidated to meet you. I read about the Bunyanesque feats of strength that Carm Cozza described in his book.

C: Master [Robert Farris] Thompson remembers, in the parking lot next to Timothy Dwight, I used to be able to jump over the roofs of cars. One time he bet me that I couldn’t—and so I ran, and jumped one, took five or so steps, jumped another one. Every time he sees me now, when I’m around Yale, he brings up my car jumping.

Y: You were jumping over the car hoods, like hurdles?

C: No, the roof.

Y: What?

C: Jumping over the hood of a car is relatively easy. But the cool thing Master T said to me last time was: “Kevin Czinger’s a guy who, I bet him he couldn’t jump over cars, and he jumped over cars. And now he’s jumping over the gas-combustion car industry completely.”

Y: So why do electric cars matter?

C: I was in the Marine Corps reserves for nine years. I got out of Parris Island boot camp in 1982. The next year, of the people who were active-duty, probably half of them died in the Lebanon Marine Corps barracks bombing. Time after time now, we’ve been engaged in war over oil. Besides that, it’s devastating for the environment of the planet. Electric cars will help reduce this dependency on oil. Between the fourth quarter of this year and the end of next year, we plan to deliver over 14,000 all-electric cars to customers in the United States.

Y: Tell me a little bit about your team.

C: The core engineering team is about two dozen people. That core team would use people like Porsche Design or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for some of the design and manufacturing, but in each case we would always architect what we were doing, control it, design it, make the key decisions, use their resources so we have leverage, and then own all of the intellectual property. I, in turn, was a total bureaucracy of one.

Y: How can a car company be born today and take on giants like Ford and Nissan with so few people?

C: You can do it today because of globalization. I lease an assembly line in China. On the customer side, people hate car dealers. All I need to do is drive people to my website, they learn about the car, and instead of a huge lot with all kinds of inventory, all I need is 300 square feet with the equivalent of an Apple Genius Desk, and six car spots for test drives.

Y: Do people think you’re crazy?

C: It’s a very competitive industry. It’s one where there hasn’t been a new independent company in 90 years or so. That said, I think the time has come for a small team.

Y: There’s a history of false starts in the electric car movement. What makes this time around different?

C: In 1990, remember how we had a cell phone like a shoebox, right? Now phones are a lot smaller. The reason? Development of batteries with more energy density. The chemistry is finally there—albeit it was only in microelectronics. The challenge was to turn the microelectronics chemistry into a real full automotive-grade battery system.

Y: Most people think of a car battery as something that goes dead when you leave the lights on overnight.

C: This is very different from a normal battery. This is an energy system that contains energy with an intelligence. If the car is left two weeks out in cold in Minnesota in a parking lot, the battery management system will wake up, check the core temperature of the batteries, turn itself on, and heat up the system if need be.

Y: Will there be a whole new infrastructure associated with these batteries? Charging stations in parking garages?

C: The average aggregate weekday driving in California is something like 38 miles. This car gives over a hundred miles of range. If people are using this as their daily driver car, there’s no need for any real infrastructure at the start.

Y: Do you hang on to the clunker for the road trip?

C: Or you get a Zipcar. I’m thinking: Sell 10,000 cars, have those stories told. That to me is much more catalytic than going, “Let me conceive the world, with all the infrastructure and everything else.” Who the hell knows?

Y: What will the car cost?

C: It’s going to be in the low to mid 30s, once tax incentives are figured in.

Y: Some say the Prius did well because of the way it looks. But the CODA just looks like a normal sedan. Do you worry you won’t satisfy the environmentalist’s essential need for showy smugness?

C: This is just like a regular car except it doesn’t use an ounce of gasoline. That, to me, is what’s cool. Do I care that it doesn’t look like a spaceship and isn’t beating its chest saying, “I’m electric, I’m electric”? No.

Y: The Yale Daily News once remarked that you were a fanatic on the football field. You responded that to play football without fanaticism was a waste of time, the most valuable commodity that humans have.

C: I’ve been married 23 years, and I have two children that I super-love. Literally there have been times when I’ve been home one weekend in a month, over a long period of time. I missed part of my daughter’s teenage years, I missed part of my son’s teenage years, and that to me is very motivating when you’re thinking about how that sacrifice or tradeoff needs to be used. And so in that sense I’m probably as fanatic about this as I’ve ever been about anything, squared or cubed. 

The comment period has expired.