Auto Industry

Let’s save the world!

LeTV’s Jia Yueting has plans to become an electric car supremo

The Faraday Future FFZERO1 electric concept car is shown after an unveiling at a news conference in Las Vegas

Welcome to the Batcave: Faraday’s FFZero1 on display

In 1955 the Lincoln division at Ford created a concept car called the Lincoln Futura. It cost $250,000 to develop (a lot of money at the time) but like many concept cars it never entered commercial production. Eventually, it was sold off for a dollar.

A decade later it reappeared as a prop in a TV series that first aired on January 12, 1966. Its new owner, Bruce Wayne, called it the Batmobile.

Almost 50 years to the day since the Batmobile’s debut, another concept car has just been unveiled at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. Made by a mysterious Chinese-backed company called Faraday Future, the supercar drew large crowds. While its official name is the FFZero1, the press soon dubbed it the Batmobile, although Faraday must be hoping it will turn out to be more of a commercial success.

The FFZero1 is a 1,000-horsepower, single-seater that can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds. Powered by a separate electric motor in each wheel, its top speed is 200mp/h.

The car’s design is based on Variable Platform Architecture (VPA), which allows modifications at lower cost (different configurations can be created by lengthening the chassis, or increasing the number of batteries). Like many new models, it also tries to stand out with new functionality. The steering wheel has a slot for smartphone devices, for instance, hinting that a passenger will be able to call the car to pick him or her up. There are augmented reality features for the windscreen, while the driver has the option of wearing a special helmet supplying water and oxygen.

Faraday’s interior designer tells lifestyle magazine DuJour that it wants to create cars “where you actually feel better after sitting in traffic for two hours”.

But who is behind the firm? Until recently the company was best known for its obsession with secrecy. The name of its CEO has never been publicly revealed and the source of its funding is also undisclosed.

In fact, its story has spun almost as many teasers as Batman’s adversary, the Riddler. Back in November, the New York Post suggested Faraday could be a front for Apple, which wants to develop an electric car as a platform for its digital products. That looks unlikely, although the man thought to be behind the company is another of those Chinese entrepreneurs who styles himself as China’s answer to Steve Jobs (even down to the black turtlenecks).

Late last year, the Associated Press got hold of a letter from Faraday to lawmakers in Nevada, where the firm is ploughing $1 billion into an electric car plant. The signatory was Jia Yueting, the founder and CEO of Leshi Information and Technology (LeTV), China’s answer to Netflix. Jia is already one of the country’s wealthiest men (in 2015, he jumped 61 places up the Forbes rankings to 17th on its China rich list, although he had a far more difficult time in 2014, see WiC262). Like Apple, he wants to develop electric cars that capitalise on digital content (see WiC268), and he also hopes to change how the auto industry combats pollution.

“We plan to revolutionise the automobile industry by creating an integrated, intelligent mobility system that protects the earth and improves the living environment of mankind,” Jia promised in his letter to Nevada lawmakers.

The Los Angeles Times says Faraday has hired 750 staff for its Los Angeles HQ, many of them leaders in their field. Of the top five managers, four hail from Tesla Motors, while the fifth is Richard Kim, who designed BMW’s i3 and i8 models.

Kim claimed to be pleased with some of the comparisons being drawn at the Las Vegas event this month. “To be like the Batmobile is not a bad thing, right?” he quipped. “If Batman wants to drive this then tell him to come and talk to me.”

Faraday was set up in 2014 and aims to get a car on the road by 2017, half the time that it took Tesla. It intimates it wants to change the industry model to one where consumers don’t own their cars, but hail or rent them. But it has more in mind than an Uber-style service: in Faraday’s vision the car drives itself.

Western journalists have poured cold water on such ambitions, with one commentator on TechCrunch describing Faraday as the “Donald Trump of start-ups” (which may end up being an unexpected tribute should the showy real estate tycoon win the Republican presidential nomination).

Fortune magazine has likened Faraday to ill-fated Fisker Automotive, which started out with grand ambitions to make electric cars, but soon burned through all of its cash. And news agency Bloomberg seems unimpressed too, concluding that had Faraday staged its event in 2008 “it would have been a showstopper”. But now the Chinese start-up is too far behind in the development cycle, it predicts, with Tesla, Nissan and General Motors all set to release electric models cheaper than gasoline cars within two years.

By the time Faraday reaches the same position it will have “lots of Batmobiles to compete with”, Bloomberg warns, including cars that might be made by Apple and Uber. Faraday counters that it will catch up quickly because building everything off a single platform makes the development process much faster. In an interview with Jiemian.com, Faraday’s R&D chief and co-founder Nick Sampson said that it also expects strong sales in the Chinese market, facilitated by a “close relationship” with the government (he doesn’t elaborate, but presumably this is thanks to connections that LeTV has fostered).

What electric cars are currently lacking are longer-lasting batteries (Tesla is working on a graphene format) and comprehensive networks for recharging them. This has been a particular problem for Tesla in China, a nation that wants to get five million electric cars on the road by 2020. That target is a step closer following the publication late last year of standardised rules for charging points, designed to increase their number (at the end of October, there were 290,000 electric vehicles in China, sharing 49,000 charging points). The new measure may help Tesla less than others because it uses its own proprietary standard (it has 352 super-charging spots and 1,204 conventional speed ones in China).

A Tesla official told China Business Journal that it would be straightforward for owners to change their plugs to comply with the new Chinese standard, although this is not a service the automaker is currently offering. Elsewhere, there are plans for a wider rollout. State Grid is planning to build 10,000 fast-charging stations and 120,000 charging posts in 202 cities and along 260,000 kilometres of highway by 2020.


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