WM Motor headquarters

WM Motors leads Chinese assault against Tesla's electric vehicles

Chinese start up WM Motor is on the brink of building an assembly plant that will start producing affordable electric vehicles in a bid to take on Tesla amongst a raft of other Chinese companies with similar plans.

The facility will most likely be built in Zhejiang province, and will launch three models, starting in 2018.

WM Motor is planning to nearly double its workforce to around 600 this year in China and Germany, where it is working on around two dozen prototype cars.

The first of those models is aimed at competing with the $35,000 (£27,000) Tesla Model 3, billed as a mass market EV.

The company eventually aims to sell more than 100,000 cars a year within 3-4 years of the planned 2018 launch, at around that price, or cheaper. Although China is the priority market for now, it is looking to enter the US market further down the line.

The emergence of China's EV start-ups does not yet signal any major related technology breakthroughs.

Instead, Freeman Shen, WM Motor CEO, believes his company has an edge over its rivals by mating high-spec German technology with what he calls low-cost, high-quality parts from Chinese suppliers. He has turned to a German firm's tech team he acquired for battery, motor control and other technologies.

"We're not making a luxury car," he said. "We're bringing luxury-like quality to a mainstream car."

Although it remains more promise than product, the electric vehicle (EV) sector is drawing more talent from mainstream automakers which are reluctant to go full tilt at the new technology.

While other Chinese EV start-ups including LeSee, NextEV, Future Mobility and Qiantu Motor are mostly backed by big internet groups such as Alibaba and Tencent, Shanghai-based WM Motor's funding, in the 'billions of yuan', is from Chinese investors, but not technology tycoons or venture capital funds, Shen said declining to reveal any specifics.

Shen has two decades of experience in the United States and China, with BorgWarner, Fiat and Geely, which in 2010 bought Swedish car brand Volvo. He aims to make smart, connected electric battery cars, betting on ordinary drivers in China's big cities wanting more affordable EVs.

He plans to go straight for this mass market rather than follow Tesla in first building a high profile super all-electric battery sports car.

"Building a fancy car to impress people is actually fairly easy as long as you're willing to spend the money," Shen said. "The most challenging part is mass production - coming up with a car everybody can buy, with high quality but at a significantly lower cost."

He reckons he has around a five-year window of opportunity to establish WM Motor in China, while Beijing offers incentives and policy support for EVs.

"I don't think traditional car companies are doing well selling cars, especially with their customer experience. With smart, connected cars, I believe I can change that," he said.

But Tesla itself could start to rival WM Motor. It is rumoured to be interested in manufacturing in China sooner than expected which would make its cars more competitive as they wouldn't face the import duties now levied on foreign-produced vehicles.

Tesla also unveiled a ‘master plan’ last month that will see the company broaden its product portfolio into electric trucks and buses, car sharing and solar energy systems.

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