To North America’s auto industry establishment, they might be little- known company names led by unfamiliar entrepreneurs. But these Chinese newcomers are dreaming large — proposing new auto brands, new technologies and new manufacturing investments and marketing strategies to crack the U.S. market.
Founder of LeEco, CEO of Faraday Future
Where: Hanford, Calif.
Background: Jia is a serial entrepreneur and founder of LeEco, a Beijing-based video-streaming website that eventually expanded into filmmaking, TV manufacturing, mobile phones, broadcast sports programs and even ride-hailing. But Jia bet all that on breaking into electric vehicles with Faraday Future— which is now facing difficulties.
U.S. plan: Initial plans to build a $1 billion factory in Las Vegas to assemble Faraday Future-brand electric vehicles fell through. So Jia moved to plan B: Lease and renovate a former tire factory in California. Preproduction prototyping of the first vehicle, the FF 91 luxury crossover, has begun, and Faraday Future wanted to begin deliveries in the first half of 2019. But the plan is now uncertain as word of money squabbles between Faraday and its Chinese investors emerged last month.
The auto startup initially planned to build the FF 91, purported to have a three-second 0-to-60-mph time and a 300-mile range. But a cash crunch forced it to scrap that plan.
Jia turned his attention to raising money from the United States. In June, Evergrande Health Industry Group acquired 45 percent of Faraday Future for 6.7 billion Hong Kong dollars ($850 million). But the status of that relationship is now unclear. Recent press reports say Faraday is losing top execs, running out of cash, temporarily cutting wages and falling behind on payments to vendors.
Founder and CEO of Envision Group
Where: Smyrna, Tenn.
Background: Zhang left Barclays in London to establish Shanghai-based Envision Group in 2007 and turned the company into one of the world’s biggest wind turbine makers. But his decision in August 2018 to buy Nissan Motor Co.’s battery making subsidiary, Automotive Energy Supply Corp., puts Envision squarely in the North American automotive realm.
U.S. plan: When Nissan Motor Co. decided to get out of the electric vehicle battery-making business, Zhang saw an opportunity to pick up an operation with a global footprint, making power packs in Smyrna, Tenn., and Sunderland, England, as well as battery development and production engineering operations in Japan. Assuming the deal passes regulatory approval, expected before March 29, 2019, Zhang says Envision intends to upgrade Automotive Energy Supply’s production facilities in the U.S., UK and Japan, to enable the production of higher-density, long-range electric batteries. Envision also intends to open new production facilities in Wuxi, China, enabling Automotive Energy Supply to serve the fast-growing Chinese market for electric vehicle batteries and stationary lithium ion batteries. The expanding volume will allow Envision to drive down the cost of its EV batteries and offer customers a truly global supply chain.
James Peng and Tiancheng Lou
Co-founders of Pony.ai
Where: Fremont, Calif.
Background: Pony.ai founders Peng, now CEO, and Tiancheng, its chief technology officer, trace their roots to two of the biggest names in high technology. Both worked at Google and Baidu, the Chinese Internet giant. At Baidu, Peng was chief architect of strategy for the company’s autonomous vehicle program, while Tiancheng won awards for his coding of self-driving cars. Their Google exposure underscored the importance of having one foot in Silicon Valley, and Pony.ai is leveraging its Fremont outpost to cultivate talent and technology in its quest for a Level 4 autonomous driving system.
U.S. plan: Pony.ai is a startup in the truest sense of the word. It was founded only in December 2016 but is aggressively targeting one of the hottest, emerging fields: artificial intelligence. By April 2017, the Chinese tech company had rolled out its first autonomous driving vehicle, and two months later had its autonomous driving permit from the state of California. Since then, it has been busy raising cash and signing on partners, including Chinese heavyweight carmaker Guangzhou Automobile Group.
In September, Pony.ai debuted its third-generation self-driving system called PonyAlpha, which the company says is the result of extensive testing in the U.S. and China. Pony.ai began field testing the system in an autonomous ride-hailing fleet in Guangzhou in February and now calls the package of hardware and software China’s first “product-ready” autonomous vehicle system.
Founder and CEO of Nio
Where: San Jose, Calif.
Background: Chinese EV startup Nio has begun deliveries of its ES8 crossover in China. But its next big market is the U.S., where it hopes to stand out with a luxury vibe and novelties such as an onboard digital assistant and swappable batteries. Nio has the backing of Chinese tech heavyweight Tencent Holdings Ltd. But a recent initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange helped it raise even more cash.
U.S. plan: Li cut his teeth in the industry by founding Bitauto Holdings, a marketing, advertising and transaction service provider to China’s mammoth auto sector. But he decided to take a stab at making cars by founding Nio in 2014. The first mass-produced vehicle, the ES8, is manufactured and sold in China. But Li sees much of Nio’s future in America. An early coup was poaching Padmasree Warrior, the former chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, to head Nio’s technology team and U.S. operations. She oversees 520 employees at the global software development center in San Jose. She has said Nio plans to sell a global model stateside as early as 2020. In the meantime, Nio, whose Chinese name, Weilai, means “blue sky coming,” has been raking in cash from the U.S. another way. Its September IPO in New York may have fallen short of its initial fund-raising goal, but the listing still reportedly generated a cool $1 billion for the upstart EV hopeful.