No sooner had I written about the vague electric car pronouncements of Faraday Future when another company that wants to take on Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors pops up.
The company is NextEV, and it'll be led by CEO Padmasree Warrior, the former chief technology officer at Cisco. She has a master's degree in chemical engineering from Cornell, but no experience in the auto industry. Before Cisco, she was at Motorola for 23 years.
Padmasree Warrior: A new focus. (Photo: Joi Ito/flickr)
It's true that Silicon Valley is becoming an auto capital, and carmakers are all opening offices there. Today's cars have lots of computing power, so they need CTOs on board. But it's kind of important that car guys are on board, too.
According to Fast Company, Warrior "didn't garner a lot of internal respect as an engineering leader, which is the unit she was originally hired to run, many people close to the company have told us." It's unclear if she left Cisco voluntarily, or if she was pushed out of the company.
NextEV is a Chinese company headed by the wealthy William Li, and automakers there have made exactly zero progress in the U.S. market — largely because 1) cars produced in China can't meet American safety standards; 2) build quality is terrible; and 3) style-wise, they resemble 1980s Toyota Corollas.
The startup seems to want a Silicon Valley gloss (its U.S. headquarters are in San Jose). There are also 400 people in China, and a design center is in Munich. Warrior says for the U.S. branch, the company is "aggressively recruiting" talent in artificial intelligence, software and robotics. And hopefully suspension systems, too.
NextEV has made some smart moves, including hiring a respected designer, Danilo Teobaldi from Italdesign Giugiaro. As you may know, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who retired in 2015, was the most respected stylist of the 20th century, with a legacy that especially sparkled in the '60s and '70s. And like Faraday, NextEV has also poached from auto companies, including, of course, Tesla (with John Thomas, a former senior program director).
The one car that Shanghai-based NextEV has actually produced is an electric racer for the Formula E series. Its investors include Sequoia Capital, which issued a statement to Fortune, "We think [the] EV sector has great potential and NextEV has a very strong founding team." Other money, a total of $500 million so far, has come from Hillhouse Capital, Joy Capital and China's Tencent.
The company, again like Faraday, is aimed directly at Tesla. Its first actual production car, out as early as this year (proclaimed timetables can turn out to be fluid) is supposed to be a supercar with 1,000 horsepower and zero to 60 in less than three seconds. Eek. Family cars with big motors are next. Sound familiar?
Warrior, who says she's met Elon and has "a lot of respect" for him, told Fast Company, that NextEV will "be targeting what we call a supercar with very high performance targets to be in production at the end of 2016. And the intent with that car is primarily to check out the performance, assess the technology and reuse a lot of that in the mass-market vehicle that will be following it."
Tesla is now worth $300 billion, they say. The Model X is starting out slowly. The falcon wing doors and seats, production of which was recently taken in-house, may have slowed down deliveries. (Photo: Tesla Motors)
That’s clear enough, and it follows the Tesla playbook. But when asked about the future of the auto industry, Warrior loses me. "I really believe," she said, "transportation and the automotive industry is about to go through a major shift. It's not just a technology-driven shift, but actually given the fact that we all live in the mobile Internet era, how can we envision a new mode of transportation, new vehicles, while leveraging all the tech companies that have happened on mobile and the Internet? How can we bring it into automotive as a platform and think about it as a technology platform, not just a physical car?" She calls this "a new vertical."
C’mon, every auto company in the world is turning their cars into technology platforms. That vision isn't exactly original. And, frankly, we're stuck with "physical cars" since I don’t think we can drive the cloud version. Automobiles are still brutish things that take up space, made of hard materials like steel, carbon fiber and aluminum. Someone — in fact, whole teams — have to make them into great performance machines, with crisp handling, tight steering and smooth acceleration. A bad car with a good stereo is still a bad car.
Enough carping. I eagerly await the next steps of NextEV. And Faraday Future, too. And don't forget at least two other competitors, Karma Automotive and Atieva. Tesla hasn't had any rivals, but now it does.
Incidentally, Tesla seems to be doing just fine, although all its new initiatives means that it continues to lose money. And there's a Supercharger fire in Norway to worry about. The company is valued at a whopping $300 billion. On Jan. 3, Tesla said it delivered 50,580 cars in 2015, 17,400 of them in the last quarter. Only 504 Model X SUVs were built during the fourth quarter, and there have been some production issues with the seats and falcon wing doors. But the company's Khobi Brooklyn says it's on track to produce 238 of them per week.