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Why This Chinese Electric Vehicle Startup Hired a Leader with No Auto Experience

A little known Chinese company called NextEV plans to take on Tesla and other electric vehicle startups by bolstering its technology leadership.
December 17, 2015

The news that Padmasree Warrior, a former technology chief at Cisco and Motorola, was hired this week as CEO of the U.S. division of the Chinese company NextEV raised an obvious question: what exactly is NextEV?

Padmasree Warrior

The simple answer is that it’s an early stage electric car company based in Shanghai, China, with locations in San Jose, Beijing, Hong Kong, London, and Munich. What it plans to become remains something of a mystery.

NextEV’s investors include William Li, founder of bitauto.com, and Xiang Li, founder of autohome.com.cn—Internet entrepreneurs who made fortunes in auto-related services in China, the world’s biggest car market. Founded this year, NextEV has not yet revealed specific product plans. Bloomberg reported in September that the company was about halfway toward its goal of raising $1 billion.

Warrior is an interesting addition to the NextEv leadership team. A respected technology executive who worked at Motorola for 23 years and Cisco for the past seven, she has no prior experience in the auto industry. She will have to quickly add automobile design, manufacturing, battery technology, retailing, and servicing to her resume. “What I bring is access to advanced technology,” says Warrior, who left Cisco in June. “And how to apply that to the automotive experience.”

Beyond broad pronouncements about reinventing the auto industry and the importance of car connectivity, the company has said little about any vehicle that NextEV might introduce, or the electric propulsion technology that makes it run. Warrior declined to detail NextEV’s product road map. “We’re not just building an electric vehicle,” she says. “We are thinking about the entire transportation experience and how to optimize it.”

Whatever Warrior’s personal motives for leaving one of the world’s premier technology companies and soon after joining a little-known EV startup, her hiring is another sign that a new breed of car companies—often aiming to develop electric vehicles in China—is following the Silicon Valley business model: move quickly with big capital and new technology, even if the product is not yet fully defined.

The list of new electric car companies, many of them backed by Chinese tech entrepreneurs, now includes Faraday Future, Atieva, NextEV, and Karma (formerly Fisker). Several of them, like NextEV, are planning to launch in the highly competitive U.S. market—and are attempting to distinguish themselves not just by offering a battery-powered electric vehicle, but by using technology like wireless connectivity, car sharing, and autonomous driving as a hook.

The market for high-end electric vehicles is dominated today by Tesla Motors. From the beginning of its formation, Tesla had a well-defined road map that started with a small expensive roadster, then a high-end sedan, and leading to the holy grail for electric cars: a long-range yet affordable model aimed at mainstream car buyers. The goal of creating a breakthrough EV for the masses is shared by Nissan, General Motors, Audi, and other old-guard carmakers—resulting in a crowded space for NextEV and other new startups.

Despite the risks, billionaire investors in China are willing to take a bet, says Thilo Koslowski, the practice leader in automotive and smart mobility at Gartner. Although software will fundamentally define the shape of vehicles in the coming decades, it will not be enough to quickly break into an automotive market dominated by long-established giants like Toyota, Volkswagen, and General Motors. “As important as the new technology will be, it’s equally important to think about the product as an automobile that consumers can trust,” Koslowski says. “No future automotive company will succeed only because of IT.”

Warrior, who will be based in NextEV’s California office, plans to work closely with NextEV president Martin Leach, the former chief executive of Maserati and former president of Ford Europe.

“There are areas where automotive technology is not mature,” Warrior says. “That’s where we will innovate.”

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