China startups take on Tesla
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA
NOT far from Tesla Motors' Palo Alto headquarters, a Silicon Valley startup plans to challenge the electric car maker with a family of vehicles designed and built in the United States - and 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 or 2021, said executives.
The company is racing not just against Tesla but also against three China-based startups that are using Silicon Valley technologists to produce a line of the "green" vehicles.
Two of those startups 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 United States.
Former executives from Tesla and Oracle launched Atieva in late 2007, and hired several former Tesla hands, including Atieva 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 engineering of the Model S sedan, said Atieva's software is the "secret sauce" tying all that hardware together to deliver 900hp to the 2,300kg four-wheel-drive van he has named "Edna".
The drivetrain propels the van from zero to 100kmh in just 3.1 seconds, a bit slower than the fastest Tesla Model S.
Atieva's 0-100 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 descendent 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's new sedan would add to a bumper crop of electric luxury vehicles vying for customers in a rarified market Tesla now has largely to itself.
This week, Daimler's Mercedes said it would unveil in October a long-range electric car it aims to sell before 2020.
German rivals Volkswagen and BMW said they are also working on premium electric cars.
Meanwhile, Tesla's chief executive Elon Musk raised US$1.46 billion (S$2 billion) with a share sale last month, and outlined plans to launch a high-volume Model 3 sedan next 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 it intends to offer an electric car.
LeEco is controlled by Chinese tech entrepreneur Jia Yueting. He also controls Faraday Future, an electric vehicle startup whose US headquarters is based near Los Angeles.
A fourth Chinese-backed startup, NextEV, has a new San Jose facility, and is backed by Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.
NextEV was launched in 2014 by William Li, founder of Chinese website Bitauto, and partly financed by Tencent, a Chinese Internet services provider.