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Chinese Tesla wannabe pushes ahead on SUV

Elisabeth Behrmann
Bloomberg News

Future Mobility Corp., the Chinese electric-car maker founded by former BMW AG and Nissan Motor Co. executives, is sticking to a plan to sell its first model by late 2019, even as it faces a long bureaucratic wait to begin production.

It’ll probably take two years to get a manufacturing license to start making cars at a $1.7 billion factory in Nanjing, FMC Chief Executive Officer Carsten Breitfeld said in an interview in Munich. If necessary, the company will outsource production of its first sport utility vehicle.

“Even if the time frame for the permit slips, there’s the option to use excess capacity at plants of other carmakers or use contract manufacturing,” said Breitfeld, who left BMW last year after leading the development of its plug-in hybrid i8 sports car.

The Chinese government has made electric-car development a priority in an effort to clean up polluted cities and set the pace in an emerging industry. While automotive startups have raised billions of dollars to meet the anticipated demand — with funding from entrepreneurs including Jack Ma and Jia Yueting — it remains to be seen how many of them will overcome the typical obstacles that precede large-scale production.

Ten auto startups have received production permits so far, including Chongqing Sokon Industry Group Co., which is advised by Tesla Inc. co-founder and former Chief Executive Officer Martin Eberhard.

Future Mobility’s lineup will start with the SUV, to be followed by a sedan and a minivan built on the same platform, Breitfeld said. The vehicles, priced between $40,000 and $50,000, will compete with mid-range models from Chinese competitors including BYD Co. The brand names for Future Mobility’s upcoming models and other details will be announced by mid-year, he said.

“What’ll set our cars apart will be the interior,” said Breitfeld. “We want our cars to have a user experience akin to the iPhone,” he said, referring to smartphones’ intuitive functionality and touchscreens. The company is opting for a battery with a relatively modest driving range of around 300 kilometers (186 miles) in order to keep the brand “affordable.”

Once it gains the permits, Future Mobility’s Nanjing factory in eastern China will have an initial capacity of 150,000 units a year and subsequently double in output, the company said in January. Other electric-car startups being financed by Chinese companies include LeEco-backed Faraday Future, which is working on a battery-powered SUV with a 600-kilometer driving range.

Breitfeld said he’s confident Future Mobility will succeed because of the government’s support for greener vehicles. China’s leaders are targeting electric-car sales of 2 million units a year in 2020, up from 507,000 vehicles last year, an increase of 53 percent compared with 2015. The jump made China the biggest market for electrified car sales for a second year.