At almost twice the volume of the U.S., China is the world’s largest car market. Its government has aggressive plans to put the country at the forefront of global electric-car development, deployment, and sales.
China’s entrepreneurs have responded energetically, with more than 60 electric-car brands now on the market or promised. Some come from established domestic or joint-venture makers, but others are brand-new companies, formed specifically to develop and sell “New Energy Vehicles,” as zero-emission cars are known.
Because China bought more EVs last year than the rest of the world combined, any electric-car startup has to focus on that market—and most, Chinese or not, have capital, offices, executives, or other businesses connected to China.
For this piece, we’ve adopted a loose definition of what makes a company “Chinese,” to focus on the most high-profile startups—and consider their chances of success.
We’ve focused on eight companies making, or close to making, electric cars in China that have shown cars or spoken of plans to sell in North America. Many follow the Tesla blueprint, initially offering luxurious, fast electric SUVs or sedans.
Given this year’s severe contraction in China’s car market and a looming global recession on top of the enormous challenges of starting any company, we’re staying away from rating any particular company’s chances. We’ve listed them in alphabetic order; you be the judge.
2020 Byton M-Byte
Cofounded by BMW executive Carsten Breitfeld, Byton is one of the Chinese makers closest to market. It has shown its M-Byte electric SUV in successively more refined versions at auto shows around the world, and it expects to put that vehicle into production by the end of this year with 72- and 95-kwh battery options. A K-Byte luxury sedan is to follow in 2021 or later.
Byton says it thinks of itself “more like Apple than Tesla,” focusing on deep integration of every user’s personal information and digital life with the car. A 48-inch display runs the full width of the cockpit below the windshield, showing all forms of information for both driver and passenger—along with a touchscreen on the steering hub for driver controls.
Sales in China will start next year, and Europe will follow in 2021, but the current U.S.-China trade war threatens to put a crimp in plans for Byton’s North American launch. It appears Byton recently contracted with a Korean company to assemble the M-Byte for export in a former GM plant in that country, which would bypass U.S. import tariffs.
In April, cofounder Breitfeld left Byton to run the long-troubled Faraday Future (below). But Byton probably sits toward the top of a list of new brands that could one day appear on sale in the U.S.
Faraday Future FF91
Faraday Future (aka FF)
Some carmakers acquire the qualifier of “perennially troubled” in media coverage. If any EV company deserved that appellation, it’s Faraday Future, which prefers to be known as FF. Cofounded by billionaire Chinese online entrepreneur and LeEco CEO Jia Yueting, the company made a splashy debut at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, announced plans to build a billion-dollar factory outside Las Vegas, and debuted its FF91 luxury electric crossover the next year.
Then the promised funding didn’t arrive, and the troubles began—far too many to recount here. At one point, remaining U.S. employees even set up a GoFundMe page. Founder Jia—known as "YT"—departed in August, and FF announced a new CEO in September: Carsten Breitfeld, a cofounder of Byton, which is steadily proceeding toward its goal of delivering production vehicles next year.
While the Las Vegas site was sold (at a loss), FF still needs the better part of $1 billion in financing to launch production, which is says it can do at a former Pirelli plant in California next year. If it gets the funds, that is.
A monkey wrench was tossed into those plans in mid-October, when Jia filed for bankruptcy and signed over his FF shares to a trust to repay his creditors. That seems unlikely to help the company raise the needed funds. Knowing FF, further drama may well ensue.
Nio ES8 high-performance electric SUV
Nio (nee NextEV)
The startup called Nio Motors can count several firsts already. It completed a billion-dollar Initial Public Offering on the New York Stock Exchange, and put two electric SUVs on sale in China. It was also profiled on the U.S. television news program “60 Minutes.”
But the company is now fighting for its life, and its promise of "Tesla range" at "Toyota cost" is far past.
Nio lost half a billion dollars in the second quarter of this year alone, and its stock has reached all-time low prices. It’s far from reaching this year’s domestic sales goal of 40,000 vehicles for its ES8 and ES6 SUVs combined.
In May, the company closed its U.S. offices and laid off the majority of its U.S. staff. More layoffs in China swiftly followed, including executives, and its cofounder resigned in August. By September, analysts suggested Nio had lost a breathtaking $6 billion since 2014—or more than Tesla has lost since 2004, on just a fraction of its production volume.
At the moment, Nio appears to be looking for a financial savior, or several. While it had a reputation for being well-financed and solidly managed, it couldn’t overcome external factors: the Chinese car market is contracting, and subsidies for New Energy Vehicles are set to end.
It’s a startup brand that plans to launch several models, the first a limited edition plug-in hybrid performance coupe, followed by a range of battery-electric vehicles to be sold globally. It’s funded by Chinese carmaker Geely. But Polestar is hardly a conventional EV startup, because Geely also owns Volvo.
The Chinese company bought Volvo from Ford in 2010, gave it the funding to develop a new engine and two vehicle platforms, and told it to renew its entire model lineup. Then Geely sat back. The results, starting in 2015, were widely lauded, and Volvo’s global sales are booming. Think of Polestar as Volvo’s hot-rod offshoot, rather like AMG for Mercedes-Benz.
Its first high-volume vehicle, the Polestar 2, is a direct competitor to the Tesla Model 3, including in pricing. But its underlying battery-electric technology will be shared across a variety of models from Geely and Volvo, giving the new brand both economies of scale and the experience of a carmaker that’s built premium vehicles for many years.
Polestar plans to have 50 stores open globally by the end of 2020, and will supply the Polestar 2 from a dedicated factory in Luqiao. A Polestar 3 electric SUV that faces off against the upcoming Tesla Model Y is expected to follow. Of all brands in this article, this one may have the greatest chance of success.
2020 Seres SF5
Seres (nee SF Motors)
This company has a convoluted history, but we’re skeptical it will sell its electric cars in the U.S. any time soon. It partly started as an EV battery-tech company, called InEVit, cofounded by Martin Eberhard, one of the original Tesla founders. It was purchased by the giant Chinese truck-maker Chongqing Sokon Industry Group in 2017, becoming SF Motors.
The company renamed itself Seres this April, when it put its SF5 electric crossover on sale in China. The year before, it had unveiled that small SUV, along with a larger one dubbed the SF7, under its old name.
The SF5 claims up to 510 kilowatts (684 horsepower) and a 0-to-62-mph time of less than 3.5 seconds for the top model. It’s built at a plant in Chongquing. The all-electric version has a 90-kilowatt-hour battery pack, but an “extended-range” model uses a smaller 33-kwh battery with a gasoline generator to recharge it on the road.
In July, the company reportedly suspended plans to bring the SF5 to the United States, where it would have been assembled in a former AM General Hummer plant in Indiana. Under a new CEO, James Taylor—previously with GM, Fisker, and Karma—it also reportedly let go a large number of its U.S. staff in Santa Clara, California. It now plans to supply other makers with electric drivetrains and offer contract manufacturing in Indiana, while focusing on the Chinese market.
2014 Tesla Model S in China
Yes, we know. This one is clearly an American company, but—like GM—it may end up selling more cars in China than in its home market. Unless they follow automotive or business media, many Tesla owners may be unaware the company already has pre-production versions of its Model 3 rolling off a brand-new assembly line (at the "pilot production" stage) in China.
The company has managed to build a complete car plant outside Shanghai in less than a year’s time, from breaking ground in January to a fully equipped factory last month. That would be tough to do in the U.S. under any circumstances, but it shows what can be done in China when state and local governments want local industry to thrive. Still, financial analysts note that speed came with onerous conditions: if Tesla fails to build and sell specific numbers of New Energy Vehicles by 2025, the local authorities can simply take over the factory.
The plant, known as Gigafactory 3, will initially assemble Model 3 sedans for the Chinese market, to be followed by the Model Y crossover utility vehicle, before or concurrently with U.S. assembly of that vehicle in California. The Chinese cars may use LG Chem battery cells, rather than the Panasonic cells used in every Tesla to date.
The Silicon Valley carmaker has already sold pricey imported models in China for several years now. Locally produced vehicles and the great advantage of Tesla’s global brand recognition and a reputation for technical audacity may make the company a tough competitor.
2018 Xpeng G3
Xpeng (actually Xiaopeng)
In January 2018, a largely unknown Chinese company showed its G3 compact electric crossover at the Consumer Electronics Show. It said the “G” in the model name stood for “geek,” and indeed Xpeng touts its connectivity and technical capabilities. Those include a camera that rises from the roof, a host of sensors pointing to future self-driving capabilities, and the requisite 15.6-inch central touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. It has already revised the G3 once, adding a model with up to 320 miles (520 km) of range to the original 250-mile (400-km) version. (Both were rated using the NEDC test cycle no longer used in Europe, which is widely considered overly optimistic.)
The company claims it has built more than 10,000 G3s since production began in December 2018. It says the G3 was “China’s best-selling EV from a new maker” in the first half of 2019, based on China Passenger Car Association data. By the end of this year, it says, it should have 120 sales outlets in 60 Chinese cities.
Xpeng gained notice in 2018 when it announced it had raised $700 million, making it the rare “unicorn” startup with a value of more than $1 billion. Its cofounders had previous experience in Chinese digital startups and New Energy Vehicle projects. Investors include giant electronics assembler Foxconn and e-commerce giant Alibaba. Any U.S. aspirations remain far in the distance, however.
Lucid had been included in the original version of this story. The California automaker, with construction of a factory underway in Arizona, argues that Chinese sources of funding were very small and in earlier rounds—and that it currently has no sights on the Chinese market.