Future Mobility Corp (FMC), an electric car start-up considered one of China’s “Tesla challengers,” said it will unveil its first concept smart car in the second half of this year before starting mass production in 2019.
It is the latest example of China’s burning ambition to take a global lead in the development of smart vehicles – and ultimately autonomous driving technology.
Daniel Kirchert, co-founder and president of FMC, told the South China Morning Post that the concept car will be a mid-size, sport-utility vehicle (SUV) priced between 300,000 yuan (US$43,576) and 400,000 yuan and featuring a host of smart technologies. The company is ramping up preparations for a production line with a capacity of 300,000 units in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province.
“We will display an excellent product to drivers. It will lay a solid foundation for our future development of self-driving vehicles,” said Kirchert. “This is a made-in-China electric vehicle and we want to develop it into a maverick.”
A clutch of mainland start-ups including FMC, Qiantu Motor, Zhiche Auto and LeEco are focusing on making affordable electric cars targeting middle-class consumers. All their developments centre around internet connectivity, in-car information and entertainment, and overcoming “range anxiety.”
“China has the potential to have two to three Tesla-size electric-car giants,” said Kirchert, a former president of Dongfeng Infiniti Motor. “FMC has the confidence to become one of them.”
The SUV to be unveiled by FMC is expected to have a range of 500 kilometres.
The fast-growing SUV segment of the mainland’s auto market, buoyed by a penchant among increasingly wealthy consumers for bigger, more upmarket vehicles, has prompted global and domestic manufacturers to ramp up production of new models sporting a price tag in the 300,000 to 400,000 yuan range.
“It is a highly lucrative segment,” said Kirchert. “Quality and safety of the products hold the key to success.”
FMC is backed by Tencent, one of the mainland’s three largest internet giants, along with Baidu and Alibaba, owner of the Post.
Alibaba has teamed up with SAIC Motor to develop internet-connected cars.
SAIC’s Roewe RX5 SUV features smart technologies from Alibaba’s operating system YunOS, which includes an intelligent digital map, smart voice control, action cameras and internet ID.
The Nanjing factory, with an investment of 11.6 billion yuan, will become FMC’s global headquarters. The smart technologies incorporated into the cars are being developed in Silicon Valley the US’ hub of innovation.
Autonomous driving, which has the potential to evolve into a multi-trillion-dollar global market, remains a far-cry from being an every-day reality. It must first meet a series of strict requirements in terms of end products, infrastructure, data collection and legal framework.
China, the world’s largest auto market and one in which reckless and drink-driving appear to be rampant, is the key marketplace being eyed by global and home-grown firms looking to roll out their self-driving models in the future.
But there are mounting worries about a bubble forming, since Chinese manufacturers have so far failed to convince motorists of the benefits of their electric models. The mainland’s streets are hardly awash with the gentle hum of battery-powered vehicles.
Tesla’s Model 3, starting at US$350,000, is now ahead of its competitors, having struck a chord with the mainland’s middle-class customers.
“China has its own advantages in developing and adopting a new generation of smart cars in terms of infrastructure building and the potential size of the market,” said Raymond Tsang, a partner at global consultancy Bain & Co. “Chinese developers are in a good position to work out ideal user-friendly transportation tools that they need.”