Taking on Tesla: China's WM Motor sees mass market electric cars

Thu Aug 11, 2016 7:56pm EDT
 
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By Norihiko Shirouzu

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

Making the jump can mean better pay and pioneering opportunities. One Chinese-backed start-up with around 900 employees, for example, has a $15 million monthly payroll, according to a person close to the company.

One such 'defector' is Freeman Shen, who quit Chinese carmaker Geely two years ago to launch WM Motor, an EV start-up that aims to compete with Tesla Motors in China, the world's biggest autos market and one that encourages the new technology through policy and subsidies.

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, says Shen. He declined to say who the money has come from.

Shen, 46, 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 says. "The most challenging part is mass production - coming up with a car everybody can buy, with high quality but at a significantly lower cost."

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Employees of WM Motor Technology Co., Ltd. work at their office in shanghai, China, August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song