This Chinese electric vehicle maker is copying Tesla—and proud of it

He Xiaopeng, founder and CEO of Xpeng Motors.
He Xiaopeng, founder and CEO of Xpeng Motors.
Image: Xpeng Motors
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As Tesla gears up to start manufacturing in China, the Palo Alto-based car maker is likely to find considerable overlap between its competitors and its most ardent admirers. Consider He Xiaopeng, founder of Xiaopeng Motors—also commonly referred to as Xpeng—a four-year-old electric vehicle startup already worth billions of dollars.

The company’s founder makes no secret of the fact that he’s heavily inspired by Tesla. After developing the Chinese web browser UC Browser and selling it to Alibaba in 2014, He began looking for possible investments in the car industry. Also in 2014, Musk made more than 200 Tesla patents publicly available. “One of the reasons Xpeng was founded was because Elon Musk made Tesla’s patents available. It was so exciting,” He said in an interview at the firm’s headquarter in Guangzhou on Thursday (Aug.16). 

“Tesla has created a huge impact on me,” said He, who recalled driving a Tesla for the very first time in 2014, the same year he founded Xpeng. “At that moment I had a very strong feeling… There will be new players to bring changes to the car industry just like Xiaomi, Apple, Huawei did in the mobile industry… I’ve also fallen in love listening to music since driving a Tesla [ because the car is so silent].”

Xpeng is known for (link in Chinese) tearing apart Tesla cars such as Model S to aid in the development of its own cars. When Xpeng unveiled its G3 model, many spotted similarities between Xpeng’s SUV and Tesla’s Model X. Observers pointed to the slim LED headlights, the windscreen that blends into a sunroof, and the large central control monitor. Just like Tesla, Xpeng is developing a charging network and sells G3 through its own stores.

He, who owns four Tesla cars himself,  said Xpeng has also hired many former Tesla staffers. Gu Junli, a former machine-learning expert at Tesla, joined Xpeng’s Silicon Valley office in late 2017 (link in Chinese).

The Alibaba-backed startup is valued at $3.6 billion after its most recent funding round, though it hasn’t yet delivered a single car. It’s among a slew of EV startups that have sprung up in recent years thanks to China’s support for “new energy vehicles,” which both include plug-in hybrids and pure battery vehicles. Other EV startups with a more than $1 billion private valuation include WM Motor and Byton. Xpeng said it hopes to secure a total funding of 30 billion yuan ($4.36 billion) by the end of 2019, according to the firm’s vice-president Brian Gu, a former JP Morgan banker.

The firm has so far received 6,000 pre-orders of G3, and has promised to produce at least 1,000 cars by the end of this year. Just like its role model, Xpeng might want to ramp up its production.