LeTV is developing an electric car to take on Tesla. They’ve hired 600 people—including 200 stationed in the U.S.—to develop the car that they revealed for the first time this week.
And if you’re totally confused, that’s okay.
If you live outside of China, you’ve probably never heard of Letv. But the company is essentially China’s Netflix. It’s the No. 1 streaming service in the country, and much like Netflix, it’s started producing shows, movies, and even sports. But Letv’s billionaire founder and CEO Jia Yueting ambitions far exceed simply ruling digital entertainment. He’s released a television (that they say became China’s top-selling smart TV), a phone (that sold 200,000 units in the first few seconds of release), and in early 2014, he vocally set his sights on Tesla, announcing that Letv will release an electric car of their own. Earlier this year, he even cashed in $1.2 billion of his own shares, then loaned the cash back to Letv, presumably to help fund the project.
Just this week, the company released the first concept sketches of their upcoming electric vehicle, seemingly named by a 12-year-old French boy: Le* Supercar. ("Le Car" was already—gloriously—taken.) Planned for the luxury market, it appears to be an elongated hatchback, giving off strong vibes of a sporty station wagon. While the designs are nothing more than drawings, we’re told that the design language itself is final. The car will debut at the 2016 Beijing Auto Show with the intent to bring it to market two and a half years from now.
The Le Supercar project, along with all of Letv's electric vehicle endeavors, is being led by Tony Nie, a former founding member of Lotus China team, who was the first person hired on the project a little over a year ago. (Notably, the original Tesla Roadster was built on a Lotus frame.) He’s spent the last year staffing up, hiring 600 people to develop the car—400 in China, and 200 in the U.S.—including talent poached from Tesla, BMW, and GM.
"Those people, they bring very good experience. They’ve done this before," Nie tells Co.Design. "They know how to avoid a mistake. They’ve learned the lessons already, so they can help us to move faster, and do something really different."
Exactly what does Nie mean by "something really different"? He’s coy with more details about the vehicle, but Le Supercar will feature its own powertrain that Letv is developing in-house—including a motor, inverter, and battery technology. He says it will feature a minimum of mechanical components, thanks largely to the car’s operating system, which will serve as the car’s primary interface. It’s a revision on the Android-based OS that Letv has been using on its televisions and phones—products that Nie sees, not as discrete electronics, but as portals to Letv’s core product: Content.
"We believe when you put the big screen and the service with the apps into the electric vehicle, you can use this as a portal as well, and reach the customer," Nie says. "That’s a main reason we want to develop this electric vehicle."
In other words, Le Supercar is almost being billed as a TV on wheels. And while that might sound silly, design studios like Ideo and auto manufacturers like Mercedes have teased a future when self-driving vehicles leave us with more time, and so our cars will be designed around relaxation and productivity. And from this perspective, maybe it’s not so crazy that Letv is producing an electric vehicle platform that Nie plans to eventually develop into a self-driving electric vehicle. Even still, it’s hard to believe that any company—even Silicon Valley giants like Apple—can produce a competitive, electric car so quickly when even the major automakers have more or less failed to best Tesla.
"If we talked about this four to five years ago, I'd have no confidence to do this," Nie admits. "But [as of] this year and last year, I think the technology is getting mature. And more companies are getting into this area. So I think it’s time to join this industry to develop something different."
* Notably, the "Le" in "Le Supercar" is inspired by Mandarin, not French, and it means "happy."