Atieva, the troubled Silicon Valley startup that began by making batteries for Chinese buses, is expected to unveil a rival to Tesla’s Model S in early December, Recode has learned. Using public records requests, Recode has also obtained exclusive images of the car’s design and initial manufacturing facility: An electric bike company in rural China.
The documents, which were filed with the state of California late last year, say that Atieva’s first vehicle will be called Atvus. The design render shows a conventionally streamlined, four-door sedan much like a Model S.
Over the summer, Atieva has been raising its profile with a series of videos showing a van equipped with an electric battery and drivetrain outperforming a variety of high-end cars, including a Ferrari, a Dodge Viper and even a Model S. The van, called Edna, has about the same range and acceleration as a mid-range Tesla, including a 2.74 second 0-60mph dash.
In September, Zhang Xin, Atieva’s deputy general manager in China, told Chinese reporters that the car will have fully independent front and rear electric motors, and will be able to accelerate from zero to 100km/h (about 62mph) in under three seconds.
According to an executive who has since left the company, Atieva’s vehicle will also come with “some elements of autonomous drive baked in.” The firm’s co-founder, Sam Weng, said, “We are creating an experience that is personalized and liberating, erasing [the] constraints of modern transportation.” That suggests a semi-autonomous highway driving system, along the lines of Tesla’s Autopilot.
Atieva has two facilities in Silicon Valley, one just 10 miles from Tesla’s own factory. Both have laboratories and workshops for vehicle development, although the company has yet to announce the location of its full-scale factory. In an interview with Reuters in June, Atieva’s manufacturing director said he wanted a U.S.-based assembly plant that would build 20,000 cars a year at first, eventually rising to 130,000 annually.
Until then, the company seems to be relying on a Chinese electric bike company for manufacturing. When asked by California officials to provide a photo of its manufacturing facility, Atieva submitted a picture of the Dayang Motorcycle company in Luoyang. Dayang makes a range of electric scooters and motorbikes, as well as a tiny two-seater micro-car called Chok with a top speed of 49mph. The Chok is so small it is even allowed in bike lanes in China. Atieva already has some presence in Asia, with a Taiwanese research hub and a facility in Shanghai.
Atieva was formed in 2007 by Weng and two co-founders, Bernard Tse and Sheaupyng Lin. The company initially worked to develop batteries and electric drivetrains, filing more than 100 patents and delivering battery packs for electric buses in China. That all changed in 2014, when two Chinese firms invested around $100 million for a nearly 50 percent stake in the firm.
One was BAIC, a Chinese state-owned carmaker, the other LeEco (then called LeTV), a technology company making televisions, smartphones and electric bikes. Atieva went on a hiring spree and pivoted to developing a complete, autonomous electric car to compete with Elon Musk’s Teslas.
Vehicle development progressed well through 2015, according to former executives, but there was growing friction among investors. Jia Yueting, the billionaire owner of LeEco, had quietly started his own electric vehicle startup, Faraday Future, in 2014, without informing the Atieva board. Then LeEco announced its own plans to develop a luxury, connected EV called the LeSEE.
Meanwhile, BAIC was attempting to get access to Atieva’s battery and drivetrain technology, and wanted to shift the company to focus on Chinese buyers. In November 2015, co-founder Bernard Tse was abruptly ousted as CEO. Then in early 2016, according to former executives, BAIC sold its stake in the company. According to several sources close to Atieva, the buyer of BAIC’s shares was Jia Yueting.
Neither Atieva nor LeEco replied to requests for a comment on this article, although Faraday Future said that it has no direct relationship to Atieva.
While the company still officially lacks a CEO, Atieva’s Chief Technical Officer Peter Rawlinson, a former Tesla VP, is understood to be running the company day to day. Atieva’s current marketing strategy seems designed to keep both its U.S. staff and Chinese investors happy.
“In 2018, Atieva new models will officially go on sale first in the United States, and then extended to the Chinese market,” said Zhang in September. “Although many parts … are still in the prototype stage, we will strive to complete the vehicle off the assembly line in two years’ time.”
It is difficult to overstate just how ambitious that goal is, given that Atieva has never produced a complete vehicle, does not currently have an assembly plant — or even a site for one — and seems to be relying on an obscure e-bike company for manufacturing assistance.
If the Atvus does emerge in 2018, it will certainly have more competition than just the Model S — if only from its sister companies. LeEco is having an official U.S. launch next week that may include details of its LeSEE luxury electric car, and earlier this year Faraday Future broke ground on a billion dollar factory in Nevada that it hopes will also be building cars within two years.
The ownership and organizational relationship of Atieva, Faraday Future and LeEco remains extremely murky. However, if Jia is serious about building an automotive empire, Atieva’s hoard of patents could be invaluable to his other companies. LeEco and Faraday Future’s vehicles will certainly share some core technologies, particularly around connectivity and autonomous drive.
The scale of Jia’s manufacturing vision is breathtaking. Along with Atieva’s 130,000 cars, Faraday Future hopes its Nevada facility will produce 140,000 annually, and a $2 billion LeEco assembly plant in China 400,000 more. Together, that would dwarf even Elon Musk’s promise that his California factory will produce 500,000 mass-market Model 3 electric cars each year, as soon as 2018.
Whether Atieva ends up as a stablemate or a competitor to LeEco and Faraday Future, one thing seems certain: Tesla Motors will be watching December’s launch of its first Chinese rival very closely indeed.
Mark Harris is an investigative technology reporter based in Seattle. In 2014, he was Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award. Follow him at @meharris.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.