From Divergent, a 108-Pound, 3D-Printed Car Chassis
By Jim Motavalli
LOS ANGELES—The last time I saw Kevin Czinger was at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2010, around the time he resigned as CEO of Coda Automotive. A member of the same class that brought us Tesla Motors and, gulp, Fisker, Coda was helmed by a bunch of ex-Goldman Sachs executives, and it was going to deliver a Porsche-engineered electric car with the best range in the business.
Kevin Czinger with the lightweight Blade. (Divergent photo)
But, after Czinger left, Coda delivered a $44,900 rebadged Chinese car that to nobody’s great surprise didn’t sell well. Or at all. The car, said Car and Driver, “incorporated all the charm of a late-’90s Daewoo Nubira for the price of a well-equipped Audi A4.” The company declared bankruptcy in 2013.
I always wondered why Czinger exited Coda so abruptly, and he says it’s because the board wanted to play it safe with the warmed-over Chinese car conversions, rather than the all-new Porsche Design Group 2.0 version he wanted to go with. “We had something that was really cool looking,” Czinger said. “Frankly,” he added, “I would rather have had the company succeed.”
The ill-fated Coda Sedan. They went with conversions. (Coda Automotive)
Czinger is a hard-charging executive and a great talker, and it’s not surprising that he’s resurfaced. And that he says his new company, Divergent—fronted by a flashy prototype car—is going to change all the rules in the auto industry. We met for breakfast, again in Los Angeles.
Divergent is, well, divergent. It’s not a car company, but a supplier that designs (and, it hopes, licenses to OEMs) very lightweight 3D-printed automotive chassis. Czinger says he can do away with traditional (and very expensive) hard metal tooling and stamping. “The components of the chassis fit into a 120-liter Patagonia backpack,” Czinger said (see the video below).
An aluminum Node, the building block of Divergent’s chassis. (Divergent photo)
To prove it can work, he’s gone and built himself the one-off Blade, which just won the Popular Science “Best of What’s New” award. The car weighs just 1,400 pounds, and with a four-cylinder, turbocharged 700-horsepower bi-fuel (gas and natural gas) adapted from a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is able to cover zero to 60 in around two seconds.
Czinger claims his frame (weighing an astonishing 108 pounds in one application, and made of aluminum powder and carbon fiber tubing) “radically reduces the materials and energy that goes into building a frame,” and thus dramatically improves the environmental footprint of cars in general. He says that newer and much faster 3D printing technology makes his new builds possible—assembly takes minutes, he says.
The rear view of the 1,400-pound Blade—under the hood is a 700-horsepower Mitsubishi-derived turbo motor, offering zero to 60 in two seconds. (Divergent photo)
Also brand-new is the ability to 3D-print metal, rather than plastic. The basic building block is called a “Node,” or a 3D-printed aluminum joint that connects the carbon fiber tubes together. Czinger isn’t the first person to realize that future car parts may be printed, rather than manufactured, but he’s among the first to try and commercialize it. “The next chassis will be 80 pounds,” he said.
Carmakers are interested, said Czinger, showing me a cellphone picture of a prominent executive kicking the tires on the Blade. The appeal is to smaller automakers that might not want to spend an estimated $1 billion on tooling up a standard auto factory.
Divergent is not to be confused with Local Motors, which aims to be a manufacturer of 3D-printed cars (including one built on an auto show floor). Local plans to sell a $50,000 electric dune buggy called the Swim. It’s only the Blade’s chassis that’s 3D-printed—the body is traditionally made of extra tough but very lightweight carbon fiber.
A chassis that fits in a backpack is going to get intense scrutiny from safety regulators, so it may take a while before cars are built around Divergent’s frames. In the meantime, we can maybe get a ride in the Blade. C’mon, Kevin, why didn’t you bring it to breakfast?
Here’s some video, with Czinger as host—and that Patagonia backpack: