Tesla boss Elon Musk is not known for admiring his competition, but when Chinese manufacturer Nio made its 100,000th electric car last week, he offered his congratulations. It was a mark of respect from a chief executive who had been through "manufacturing hell" with his own company. Yet it is also a sign of the growing influence of China's electric carmakers. They are hoping to stake out a spot among the heavyweights of the new industry and bring a significant new challenge to Tesla – and to the rest of the automotive industry as it scrambles to catch up. Tesla mania and cheap money have pushed the market valuations of a clutch of electric carmakers to astonishing levels.
Some of China's wealthiest tycoons steered billions of dollars into electric-car companies in order to fuel the country's dreams of becoming a leader in the field. Now a reckoning may be looming as car sales slow and the government reduces subsidies for the nascent industry. That leaves the flagship companies of Jack Ma, Pony Ma, Hui Ka Yan and Robin Li facing an increasingly steep path to profitability on their bets that electric vehicles can be smartphones-on-wheels connecting passengers to other businesses. Their capital, along with dozens of startups raising $18 billion, helped inflate an electric bubble that now looks to be in danger of popping. China's car market is experiencing a prolonged sales slump, prompting EV-makers to slash earnings outlooks.
The electric car maker joins the more than 20 Chinese technology companies to tap the U.S. market this year by listing on the Nasdaq Stock Market or the New York Stock Exchange and raising a total of over $6 billion, according to Dealogic data. China's electric-vehicle startups, which faced declining sales last year while collectively incurring billions of dollars of losses, are resurgent. The turning point came, according to auto analysts, when Nio, the highest-profile Chinese EV startup, secured nearly $1 billion in funding from several state-owned companies in the eastern city of Hefei, allaying fears about the company's solvency. Since then Nio's New York-listed shares have rallied from under $3 to nearly $18. Tesla's strong performance in China has also buoyed investors, said Bill Russo, the founder of Shanghai-based consulting firm Automobility.
China is shaping up to be the first real test of Big Tech's ambitions in the world of carmaking, with giants from Huawei Technologies Co. to Baidu Inc. plowing almost $19 billion into electric and self-driving vehicle ventures widely seen as the future of transport. While Apple Inc. has long had plans for its own car and Alphabet Inc. has Waymo, its autonomous driving unit, the size -- and speed -- of the move by China's tech titans puts them at the vanguard of that broader push. The lure is an industry that's becoming increasingly high tech as it pivots away from the combustion engine, with sensors and operating systems making cars more like computers, and the prospect of autonomy re-envisioning how people use will them. As the world's biggest market for new-energy cars, China is a key battlefield. Established automakers like Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co. are already slogging it out with local upstarts such as market darling Nio Inc. and Xpeng Inc.
Tesla Inc.'s plan to build a $25,000 car within the next three years doesn't seem to have fazed China's most-promising electric vehicle startups, with executives at the Beijing Auto Show saying Elon Musk can bring it on. "It's a good thing for us," WM Motor Co. founder and Chief Executive Officer Freeman Shen said. "We are very happy Tesla came to China because Tesla is just like Apple in the early days, they educate the whole market." Just as Apple Inc.'s share in the mobile-phone market has been eroded by local players like Xiaomi Corp., Oppo and Huawei Technologies Co., so too will Tesla's, however over a longer time horizon, Shen said. Tesla's slice of the "mainstream" electric vehicle market will significantly decrease in five to 10 years, he said.