Chinese foray into electric vehicles

Mr Jia Yueting, co-founder and head of LeEco, unveiled an all-electric battery concept car called LeSEE in Beijing in April.
Mr Jia Yueting, co-founder and head of LeEco, unveiled an all-electric battery concept car called LeSEE in Beijing in April.PHOTO: REUTERS

Atieva, which has major backing from Chinese investors, plans to rival Tesla by designing and building the cars in the US

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA • A few kilometres from Tesla Motors' Palo Alto headquarters, a Silicon Valley start-up plans to challenge the electric carmaker with a rival family of vehicles designed and built in the United States with major backing from Chinese investors.

Atieva plans to put a premium electric sedan on the road in 2018, followed by a pair of luxury crossovers in 2020-2021, company executives told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

The company is racing not just against Tesla, but also against three China-based start-ups that are using Silicon Valley technologists. Two of those start-ups are funded by the same Chinese Internet billionaire backing Atieva. All three have opened technical facilities in Silicon Valley in the past year.

Only one of those companies, Faraday Future, has said it also plans to build its electric vehicles in the US.

Unlike those companies, Atieva was started in California. Former executives from Tesla and Oracle launched it in late 2007 and hired several former Tesla hands, including Atieva's chief technology officer Peter Rawlinson.

With its first car still at least two years away from production, Atieva is using a Mercedes-Benz Vito commercial van to test the drivetrain: a pair of high-output electric motors, a lithium-ion battery pack, inverters and controllers.

Mr Rawlinson, who while at Tesla led the engineering of the Model S sedan, said Atieva's software is the "secret sauce" tying all that hardware together to deliver a combined 900 horsepower to the 2.3-tonne four-wheel-drive van he has named "Edna".

The drivetrain propels the van from zero to 100kmh in just 3.1 seconds, a fraction slower than the fastest Tesla Model S. Atieva's 0-60 acceleration target for its 2018 sedan is 2.7 seconds, faster than a 12-cylinder Ferrari supercar.

The Atieva sedan, being developed under the code name Project Cosmos, looks like a futuristic descendant of the Audi A7. Its headlamps are ultra-thin, with thousands of insect-inspired micro lenses. Its dashboard has a three-piece reconfigurable digital display that can be controlled by voice or touch.

Atieva has raised several hundred million dollars from investors including Mitsui & Co Ltd, the Japanese trading giant, and Venrock, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm connected with the Rockefeller family that once funded Intel and Apple.

Atieva's launch schedule would add its new sedan to a bumper crop of electric luxury vehicles vying for customers in a rarified market Tesla now has largely to itself.

This week, Daimler AG's Mercedes luxury car brand said it would unveil in October a long- range electric car it intends to put on sale before 2020.

German rivals Volkswagen and BMW have said they are also working on premium electric cars.

Tesla did not reply to a request for comment about these would-be rivals, but it is not sitting still and waiting for them to pounce. Chief executive officer Elon Musk raised US$1.46 billion (S$1.97 billion) with a share sale last month and outlined plans to launch a high-volume Model 3 sedan next year.

Tesla's lead in the electric luxury vehicle segment has bolstered the price of its shares, which remain more than double their level of three years ago despite a 9 per cent decline for the year to date.

As Atieva looks for where it will build its US factory, manufacturing director Brian Barron says the company has narrowed its search to two sites and expects to choose later this year.

Mr Barron, who spent 20 years overseeing various BMW plants, said the factory will be designed to build 20,000 electric cars a year initially, ramping up in stages to 130,000 a year.

Two of Atieva's biggest shareholders are Chinese: state-owned Beijing Auto and a subsidiary of publicly traded LeEco, an Internet company that has also declared its intent to offer an electric car.

LeEco is controlled by Chinese tech entrepreneur Jia Yueting. Mr Jia also controls Faraday Future, an electric vehicle start-up whose US headquarters is based near Los Angeles and which also shares space in LeEco's San Jose technical centre in Silicon Valley.

A fourth Chinese-backed start-up, NextEV, has a new San Jose facility near LeEco. It is backed by Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which funded Google in its infancy.

NextEV was launched in 2014 by Mr William Li, founder of Chinese website Bitauto, and financed in part by Tencent, the Chinese Internet services provider.

Atieva design vice-president Derek Jenkins said the company will set itself apart from its Chinese rivals using its "California DNA" and its "California mindset".

He did not provide specifics, but he led the team that designed the latest Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese foray into electric vehicles'. Print Edition | Subscribe