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Tesla's missteps offer timely lesson for China's EV startups
Yang Jian | 2018/6/15

SHANGHAI -- Attracted by the consumer buzz and high market valuation Tesla Inc. has enjoyed over traditional carmakers, a slew of electric vehicle manufacturers have sprung up in China over the past few years.

Chinese EV startups are now looking to their American peer not for inspiration but for lessons from the mistakes it has made. 

And the miscues are a timely case study: No EV startup in China has started delivering vehicles to consumers.

Tesla has repeatedly missed production targets for the Model 3 electric sedan. CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter in April to admit the main reason behind the problem lies in the company¡¯s overdependence on robots and automation in vehicle assembly. ¡°Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,¡± he noted. 

This week, EV startup Byton unveiled its global headquarters in the east China city of Nanjing. 

Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld, reflecting on Tesla¡¯s setbacks, told journalists that given the complexity involved in vehicle production, abiding by well-established traditional vehicle manufacturing processes is the only way to ensure output proceeds on schedule. 

Several other EV startups in China have plans to start mass production this year. 

But Byton will stick to its schedule. Its assembly plant in Nanjing won¡¯t kick off production until late 2019, nearly two years after the unveiling of its first concept car, an electric crossover, in Las Vegas, according to Breitfeld. 

Chinese EV startups often highlight autonomous driving as a selling point of their vehicles. But at least one of their leaders is cautioning against doing so, drawing on a lesson from Tesla. 

In March, a Tesla Model X crossover crashed into a freeway divider in California. The driver, who was killed in the accident, was using the vehicle¡¯s Autopilot adaptive cruise control system but appeared to have ignored the vehicle¡¯s warnings to take back control, according to Tesla¡¯s investigation and U.S. regulators.

In April at the Beijing auto show, Freeman Shen, CEO of WM Motor, a Shanghai EV startup, said the main culprit of the fatal accident is Tesla¡¯s Autopilot system. 

The word Autopilot would mislead a driver into believing that the vehicle could drive itself, he noted in front of journalists at the show.

Though the driver is expected to stay attentive, it is often too late for a driver to react and regain control when a vehicle sends out a warning, Shen explained. 

MW Motor management debated internally whether to deploy Level 3 autonomous driving technology in its lineup but eventually decided not to, he said.

¡°The Level 3 technology basically says the car is almost ready for autonomous driving, but the driver must be 100 percent in control,¡± Shen explained. ¡°That again is misleading to consumers.¡± 

At the Beijing auto show, WM Motor launched its first product, a compact electric crossover. Shen acknowledged the car was still being tested by employees. 

Shen was previously Volvo Car Corp.¡¯s China president. ¡°As a car guy, it is dangerous to launch a product that is not completely ready for the market,¡± he said. 

Like WM Motor, NIO, another Shanghai EV startup, is playing it safe to bring its first product, a seven-seat SUV, to market. 

Last month, it delivered a batch of the SUVs to investors for comments and feedback, instead of selling them directly to customers as it was expected to.

Sobered by Tesla¡¯s missteps, Chinese EV startups are off to a slower and yet safer start. And for good reason.

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