“Tesla of China” NIO cancels plans to build a local factory after heavy 2018 losses

NIO, the Chinese electric vehicle startup with its eyes set on Tesla’s luxury auto market consumers, revealed some production stumbling blocks in a press release on Tuesday detailing its Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2018 Financial Results. One of the most notable points of interest was its decision to cancel plans to build a Shanghai manufacturing facility in favor of continuing to contract work to state-owned JAC Motors. The report also revealed $1.4 billion in losses, doubling the losses experienced in 2017, despite meeting production and delivery goals for the year.

Even without having a factory to call its own, NIO currently has two SUV vehicles for sale, the ES8 and coming ES6. Having a deal with the government – one where the government makes a product for a company rather than the other way around – may seem unusual, especially in the US. However, it’s par for the course in China. In a call with investors following the news release Tuesday, NIO chief financial officer Luis Hsieh commented that such arrangements are “endorsed and perceived as an innovative manufacturing model in China.” As a result, NIO has been able to put vehicles on the road quickly, giving it an edge over the extensive competition in the country.

It’s also interesting to note that NIO represents one of hundreds of China-based EV companies hoping to cash in on Chinese government incentives driving the ramp up of the all-electric car market. With 5 million annual EV sales expected to come from China in the near future, startups like NIO and established electric brands like Tesla are eyeing a bright future full of growth. Tesla’s Shanghai-based Gigafactory 3 is a nod to their high sales expectations in the country.

NIO’s ES6 electric SUV command panel. | Credit: NIO

NIO’s deal with JAC Motors is apparently hurting its bottom line, however. Along with a fee collected by the manufacturer for each vehicle produced, NIO is required to compensate JAC for any operating losses during the first 3 years of production. If that’s not enough eating away at the company’s progress, slow January/February markets, tough trading conditions resulting from the ongoing US-China trade war, and end-of-year sales ramps in 2018 are being offered by NIO as reasons for a delivery slowdown in the early part of this year. The company expects the slowdowns to continue into the second quarter of 2019 for largely the same reasons.

The bad financial news from NIO is perhaps a bit surprising considering that the announcement is on the heels of a 60 Minutes feature wherein CEO William Li was hopeful for the company’s prospects in China’s EV market. NIO has been positioned as a lifestyle company rather than simply a car maker, offering exclusive owner perks like clubhouses and on-demand charging solutions. Li’s plans also include eventual entry into the international market, and the company already has offices around the world seemingly to aid in this effort.

Perhaps without Tesla’s experiences coming to market shining a light on what’s possible during a new EV manufacturer’s development path, news like NIO’s announcement would immediately spell impending doom for such a new company in a still-evolving market. That is not quite the case, of course, and NIO, along with the numerous EV startups begun in Tesla’s wake, have essentially a wealth of information available to learn from as applicable to their national situations. Even still, just as Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk often stated that “rockets are hard” despite decades of space launching knowledge being available, so too are electric vehicle companies.

“Tesla of China” NIO cancels plans to build a local factory after heavy 2018 losses
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