One could be forgiven for thinking that Tesla is the only company in existence building autonomous, or self-driving, electric vehicles. The Elon Musk hype machine, fueled by the fanboys at Futurism and other tech sites, has been in overdrive lately.
The United States has not been the leader in the sales of electric vehicles since 2014. That title goes to China, where investments in Chinese self-driving and electric vehicle startups has accelerated. As of 2017, there were more than 40 companies not named Tesla testing self-driving vehicles on the road.
China has the world’s biggest population at 1.3 billion people and the world’s second biggest economy at $11 trillion. The population boom in China has brought its own kind of bust in the form of pollution that’s thicker than the haze at a 420 rally in Boulder, Colorado. Those new middle class households all now own cars, creating a chaotic choke hold on the country’s highways and byways. With a ballooning middle class with money to burn, the Chinese want to invest their money and become the leader in artificial intelligence and robotics. It’s no wonder why the Party through its semi-capitalist system is pushing toward quiet and clean technologies. And, if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes in a vehicle in China, you would appreciate the concept of self-driving vehicles.
Leader of the Pack
The top-8-funded Chinese automotive startups today include companies building electric and autonomous vehicles:
- NIO – Founded in 2015, the brand has become synonymous with the company’s official name, NextEV. The company picked up a cool $1 billion last month as part of a Series D. Earlier this year, its sporty, electric model EP9 claimed the title as fastest self-driving car in the world, reaching a speed of about 160 mph without a human behind the steering wheel.
- BAIC BJEV – A state-owned venture, the company reached $1.6 billion with the Series B model. BJEV is a smaller unit of the larger BAIC Group, a state-owned enterprise and holding company for automobile and machine manufacturers headquartered in Beijing. In fact, about two-thirds of the investments come from government-backed enterprises. Founded in 2009, BJEV is one of the largest EV companies in China, with 30,000 vehicles sold during the first half of this year, according to China Money Network. The company is reported to have has a post-money valuation of $4.2 billion.
- WM Motor – Founded in 2015, this Shanghai-based company has picked up $1.15 billion in disclosed investments. WM Motor hopes to begin selling a sport utility EV by 2018, with an eventual capacity to manufacture 100,000 vehicles per year, according to Reuters. Shen apparently has a fetish for zee Germans. The WM stands for Weltmeister, the German word for “world champion”. The cars will reportedly even incorporate German technology, including tech from Bosch and Siemens. This company also made our list of EV startups to watch.
- LeSee – Developed by Beijing-based LeEco, a global Chinese internet company, LeSee is an autonomous EV concept project backed by about $1 billion in investments, including from Lenovo. Touted as the first “mobility ecosystem on wheels” the LeSee has been engineered by science fiction writers. For example, when the vehicle encounters an obstacle, the front and rear panels on the car will illuminate with an animated hazard display. So, if a pedestrian passes in front of vehicle, his silhouette will be digitally projected on the vehicle’s rear to show other drivers the pedestrian’s position, probably scaring the pa-tootie out of them in the process.
- Future Mobility – Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Nanjing, the startup also has offices in Europe and the United States. The company, which branded its upcoming line of cars under the name Byton, plans to launch three vehicles by 2022. Its first Chinese self-driving EV, a midsize SUV, might be ready for the Chinese market by 2019, according to Reuters. The company raised $200 million in August in addition to an undisclosed Series A last year that included Tencent and Foxconn.
- CHJ Automotive – The Poor Man’s Tesla. Founded in 2015, Beijing-based Chehejia raised about $120 million last year in a Series A. Chehejia plans to build two kinds of models of electric vehicle. One will be a Smart Car-sized EV for short urban trips and a much bigger SUV-type EV for longer journeys. Its manufacturing facilities will be highly automated, with a welding workshop equipped with 112 intelligent welding robots, for example:
- TuSimple – The company has picked up $75 million in additional funding, including a $55 million Series C last month, for total disclosed investments of about $83 million. AI chip maker Nvidia is a key investor and backer. TuSimple’s technology focuses on machine vision for developing driverless trucks with full automation capabilities.
- Momenta.ai – Founded in 2016 and out of Beijing, Momenta.ai has $51 million in disclosed funding, including a $46 million Series B in July that included NIO and German automaker Daimler. The company focuses on developing deep learning algorithms to improve self-driving safety, particularly in machine perception, mapping and path planning.
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Episode 329 – August 6, 2018