Top 8 Chinese Self-driving Electric Vehicle Startups
One could be forgiven for thinking that Tesla is the only company in existence building autonomous, or self-driving, electric vehicles. The Elon Musk hype machine, fueled by the fanboys at Futurism and other tech sites, has been in overdrive lately. Now, if the billionaire tells us his secret to regrowing hair, then we might jump on the bandwagon ourselves. In the meantime, we’re going to step back and offer a bit of perspective: As of 2017, there were more than 40 companies not named Tesla testing self-driving vehicles on the roads of California. Here’s perhaps a bigger shocker: The United States has not been the leader in the sales of electric vehicles since 2014. That title goes to China, where investments in Chinese self-driving and electric vehicle startups has accelerated like crazy since 2015:
CrunchBase reported that prior to 2015, China-based EV and self-driving startups had only raised about $23 million across eight deals over seven years. Suddenly, over the last two years, investments have soared to more than $5 billion. This year (so far), most of the wealth has gone to just two companies in two mega rounds: Beijing-based BAIC Group ($1.6 billion in August) and NIO ($1 billion in November) out of Shanghai.
In case you’ve missed it: China, with the world’s biggest population at 1.3 billion people and the world’s second-biggest economy at $11 trillion, does everything on a mega scale. It wants to be the leader in artificial intelligence and robotics. Its ballooning middle class has money to burn. But the boom has brought its own kind of bust in the form of pollution that’s thicker than the haze at a 420 rally in Boulder, Colorado. Those new middle-class households all now own cars, creating a chaotic chokehold on the country’s highways and byways. It’s no wonder why the Party through its semi-capitalist system is pushing toward quiet and clean technologies. And, if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes in a vehicle in China, you would appreciate the concept of self-driving vehicles.
We just hope the companies below also throw out the horn when they remove the steering wheel. (One thing to note: This list is the top-8-funded Chinese automotive startups, which includes companies building just electric vehicles or developing only autonomous vehicles, as well as those that do both.)
Sporting Some Serious Money
Founded in 2015, NIO (the brand has become synonymous with the company’s official name, NextEV) has picked up a total of $2.1 billion in disclosed funding, including from domestic tech giants Tencent and Baidu, as well as leading venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital. The company picked up a cool $1 billion last month as part of a Series D. Earlier this year, its sporty, electric model EP9 claimed the title as fastest self-driving car in the world, reaching a speed of about 160 mph without a human behind the steering wheel. It definitely looks like something the Q Branch, the R&D department for James Bond, might roll out for the super spy:
Indeed, the startup seems caught up in the need for speed: Its most successful vehicle to date has been a Formula E racer. Its new EV powertrain for the race car can go from 0 to 63 mph in three seconds. The startup has said its first mass commercial product, an all-electric sport-utility vehicle called the Nio ES8, should be on the market by the summer of 2018. We first covered these guys in March.
Update 04/29/2020: NIO has raised $1 billion in funding to support its business development and enhance its leadership in smart electric vehicles. This brings the company’s total funding to $5.4 billion to date.
A State-Owned Venture
BAIC BJEV joined the growing number of Chinese unicorns this summer with a $1.6 billion Series B, though the Financial Times recently reported that some of these Chinese companies are using creative math to get there. BJEV is actually a unit of BAIC Group, a state-owned enterprise and holding company for automobile and machine manufacturers headquartered in Beijing. In fact, about two-thirds of the investments come from government-backed enterprises. Founded in 2009, BJEV is one of the largest EV companies in China, with 30,000 vehicles sold during the first half of this year, according to China Money Network. CMN also reported that the company has a post-money valuation of $4.2 billion.
Send More Money
Founded in 2015, Shanghai-based WM Motor has picked up at least $1.15 billion in disclosed investments from the usual suspects like Baidu and Tencent. Baidu’s VC arm also led another Series B this month but amounts were not immediately revealed. The company’s founder, Freeman Shen, told Reuters that the startup has raised closer to $1.8 billion but still needs more capital before it can scale. (We refer you again to the Financial Times article.) WM Motor hopes to begin selling a sport utility EV by 2018, with an eventual capacity to manufacture 100,000 vehicles per year, according to Reuters. Shen apparently has a fetish for zee Germans. The WM stands for Weltmeister, the German word for “world champion”. The cars will reportedly even incorporate German technology, including tech from Bosch and Siemens. This company also made our list of EV startups to watch.
Back to the Future
LeSee is about as Back to the Future future-ish as it gets. Developed by Beijing-based LeEco, a global Chinese internet company, LeSee is an autonomous EV concept project backed by about $1 billion in investments, including from Lenovo. Touted as the first “mobility ecosystem on wheels”—whatever that means—the LeSee seems to have been engineered by science fiction writers. For example, when the vehicle encounters an obstacle, the front and rear panels on the car will illuminate with an animated hazard display. So, if a pedestrian passes in front of vehicle, his silhouette will be digitally projected on the vehicle’s rear to show other drivers the pedestrian’s position, probably scaring the isht out of them in the process. Despite backing its own autonomous EV, LeEco has reportedly also sunk money into Faraday Future, a pretender to the Tesla throne.
A Smart Tablet EV
Another autonomous EV automaker we first eyeballed in March, Future Mobility raised $200 million in August in addition to an undisclosed Series A last year that included Tencent and Foxconn. Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Nanjing, the startup also has offices in Europe and the United States. The company, which branded its upcoming line of cars under the name Byton, plans to launch three vehicles by 2022. Its first Chinese self-driving EV, a midsize SUV, might be ready for the Chinese market by 2019, according to Reuters. It sounds like there will be plenty of distractions and blinky lights, such as a touchscreen tablet sandwiched into the steering wheel and a panoramic screen along the width of the dashboard.
The Poor Man’s Tesla
Founded in 2015, Beijing-based Chehejia raised about $120 million last year in a Series A. (TechNode reported that the startup has raised a total of $2.5 billion RMB, which given the current exchange rate, puts investments at $375 million. Again, see the Financial Times article.) Chehejia plans to build two kinds of models of electric vehicle. One will be a Smart Car-sized EV for short urban trips and a much bigger SUV-type EV for longer journeys. Its manufacturing facilities will be highly automated, with a welding workshop equipped with 112 intelligent welding robots, for example:
The company is looking to raise at least another $200 million to make its dreams become reality in the next four years. Founder Li Xiang styles himself after Elon Musk. He certainly seems to prefer a similar workload; he is also a co-founder of the more Tesla-like NextEv, among other startups.
Keep on Trucking
We first wrote about TuSimple back in August in our feature on startups developing self-driving trucks. The company has since picked up $75 million in additional funding, including a $55 million Series C last month, for total disclosed investments of about $83 million. AI chip maker Nvidia is a key investor and backer. TuSimple’s technology focuses on machine vision for developing driverless trucks with full automation capabilities.
Update 09/17/2019: TuSimple has raised $120 million in Series D funding to continue developing its autonomous vehicle technology and expand its long-haul routes in Arizona and Texas. This brings the company’s total funding to $298.1 million to date.
The Brains of the Operation
Founded in 2016, Momenta.ai out of Beijing has $51 million in disclosed funding, including a $46 million Series B in July that included NIO and German automaker Daimler. The company focuses on developing deep learning algorithms to improve self-driving safety, particularly in machine perception, mapping and path planning:
The company claims its mapping solution, which reconstructs 2D images into 3D traffic positions combined with data from GPS and other instruments, is more scalable and cost-effective than LIDAR-equipped systems.
Update 11/04/2021: Momenta has raised $200 million at a valuation north of $1 billion, making Momenta the first autonomous driving unicorn company in China. This brings the company’s total funding to $1.2 billion to date.
We started this article with Tesla, so let’s end it there as well: The company has risen to be one of the most valuable automakers in the United States, but it’s riding on the edge, with serious production delays on the Model 3 and a host of other internal problems. It certainly can’t afford to make many more mistakes. Now, with the Chinese joining the race with deep pockets and even deeper ambitions, we see a day not so far in the future when Asia zooms past the United States in developing self-driving EVs. These are the same people, after all, who have poured billions of dollars into bike-sharing startups. They are maniacs on and off the road. Driver beware.
(Disclosure: We hold a modest share of stock in Tesla and Nvidia.)
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