China’s new “automotive dragons” Faraday and Baidu target EV, autonomous leadership

  • 16-Dec-2015 01:55 EST
Faraday factory rendering.jpg

Move over, Elon Musk: Architect's design rendering of Faraday Future's planned $1B electric vehicle plant near Apex, NV. 

Two upstart Chinese companies with big automotive ambitions are grabbing headlines as they lure top engineering and product-development talent— and prepare to unveil potentially disruptive new products and technology strategies.

Faraday Future, the emergent Chinese EV maker, was founded in 2014 and already has more than 500 employees. It recently selected a site in North Las Vegas, NV, for a new $1B manufacturing plant for a luxury electric car that would compete with Tesla’s Model S and the upcoming wave of high-end EVs.

And Internet search-engine giant Baidu, dubbed “the Google of China,” is joining the race to develop autonomous cars, with a growing engineering presence in California and plans to field its first such vehicles in China by 2018.

“These are the new ‘automotive dragons’ rising out of China’s tech industry,” an executive at a Tier 1 supplier remarked privately to Automotive Engineering. “They’ve landed surprisingly from out of the blue, and I think both have the potential to be serious players on a global scale. They certainly have brought a new discussion to the EV and autonomous vehicle landscape.”

Faraday’s leading financial backer is Jia Yueting, the founder and CEO of Leshi Internet & Technology Co. Its LeTV has been called “the Chinese Netflix.” Yeuting has a net worth of $7.9B, according to Forbes, which ranks him as the 41st richest person in China and the 557th wealthiest in the world. He has said publically that electric cars are his "dream and passion," and his letter to Nevada legislators laid out the Beijing-based company’s OEM intentions and identified Yeuting as one of a group of investors.

Faraday’s greenfield Nevada factory site, near the small town of Apex, was chosen over locations in Georgia and Illinois that offered existing auto plants and strong relocation incentives. The company’s U.S. operations are in Nissan’s former sales headquarters in Gardena, CA. It also has a Silicon Valley office along with staff in Düsseldorf and Beijing.

Catered lunches for engineers

According to the company’s website (http://www.faradayfuture.com/), Faraday’s leadership is seeking “ambitious, bright minded professionals who will become part of entrepreneurial teams that prefer action over process and bureaucracy.” Its product development (PD) philosophy places “equal emphasis on automotive and technology disciplines” with its team of experts “uniquely positioned to take a user-centric, technology-first approach to vehicle design with the ultimate aim of connecting the automotive experience to the rest of your life.”

If SAE readers are among those hired for positions currently listed (as of mid-December)—in PD and engineering; design; “product excellence;” supply chain; manufacturing, and marketing/communications—you can look forward to “catered lunches, social events, Q&A sessions over cocktails with the executive team, and the chance to unleash all your great ideas in an open and collaborative environment” in addition to competitive compensation packages, according to the site. Additionally, Faraday is offering “significant equity packages” in the company.

Faraday Future's impressive leadership team reflects a strategic poaching of Tesla Motors’ executive ranks. Nick Sampson, the Senior Vice President of R&D and Engineering, led Model S vehicle and chassis development. Senior Engineering Manager Umran Ashraf played a key role in developing the Model S body architecture. Heading manufacturing is Dag Reckhorn, who held a similar position at Tesla as did Tom Wessner, the new Vice President of Supply Chain.

Alan Cherry, the VP of Human Resources, was Tesla Motors’ Senior Director of HR. The Faraday team also includes Head of Design Richard Kim—a founding member of BMW’s i Design group who spearheaded design of the i3 and i8 concepts. And Faraday’s Senior Manager of battery hardware is Porter Harris, previously the life-support systems engineer at Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Armed with a $335 million incentive package that includes property-tax deferrals—not nearly as juicy as the $1.3B tax credits and other giveaways granted to Tesla for its Nevada “gigafactory”—Yeuting's Faraday Future team still has to produce a sustainable product plan, let alone a single vehicle. It will unveil its first concept EV January 4 at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.

Baidu brings 3D mapping and AR

Autonomous vehicles are where Chinese Internet search giant Baidu is entering the auto industry, with plans to field its first such vehicles in China within three years.

Baidu is the top Chinese-language search provider and the most trafficked website in China. Its Senior Vice President, Wang Jing, said recently that he will head a new business unit that will develop automated-driving and autonomous technologies initially for use on buses and shuttle vehicles.

Like Google, Baidu has grand automotive plans to use its 3D map data and “Deep Learning” augmented reality (AR) technology in which computers simulate the brain in learning from massive amounts of data to expand its scope beyond online search. The company currently has a partnership with BMW to develop, prototype, and test the technology suites in both laboratory and on-road environments.

While Google has not formally announced intentions to be an automaker, Baidu has stated that it has no such plans. In 2014 the company hired Stanford University researcher Andrew Ng as Chief Scientist at Baidu's research center in Sunnyvale, Ca. He was part of the team which set up Google’s artificial-intelligence effort and plays a lead role in Baidu’s car project.

Baidu engineers have equipped two prototype BMW 3 Series autonomous cars with LiDAR, sensors, and cameras with varying visibility ranges, along with Baidu’s highly detailed map and control software deep-learning technology. Wang has claimed the cars, being road tested on expressways around northern Beijing, are the first in China to have demonstrated full autonomy under mixed-road conditions. He said Baidu is in discussions with Chinese and foreign OEMs, but declined to elaborate in published reports. The company has yet to announce a schedule for making self-driving cars commercially available.

A recent study by Nielsen noted that Chinese consumers are more open to the concept of automated driving than those in the U.S. and Germany and are also willing to pay extra for connected car services.

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