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NIO: 'Tesla killer' wants better US-China cooperation

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Robin Brant - BBC News, Shanghai
·3-min read
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Nio supercar at the Shanghai auto show
Nio supercar at the Shanghai auto show

The billionaire founder of the Chinese electric vehicle (EV) company that's now one of the most valuable car makers in the world has called on the leaders of the US and China to develop "better trust in each other" as they try to reach a new deal on reducing carbon emissions.

William Li is the founder of Chief Executive of NIO. The EV maker is sometimes labelled as China's Tesla killer. Its value has skyrocketed since the firm came close to financial collapse in late 2019.

Speaking to the BBC in Shanghai, just a few days after the US Presidential envoy on climate John Kerry came to the city for two days of talks with government officials, Mr Li said that "under current international relations it is very hard to achieve a mutual understanding."

NIO is at the forefront of China's home-made effort to dominate the EV industry. It has bet big on interchangeable batteries in its cars as a way to overcome customer concerns about frequent charging.

China's EV market currently faces overcapacity and a plethora of players. The number of registered manufacturers is over 500. In March EV sales in China broke through the symbolic 10% of total vehicle sales.

Tesla is also now making cars in China for the Chinese market. Elon Musk secured significant financial support for his factory from the Shanghai government.

Li Bin, as he is known in China, told the BBC that he thinks Tesla has been the biggest beneficiary of state efforts to spur development, saying the US giant "is the one who benefits most from Chinese regulations".

Mr Li added that policy support from Beijing "doesn't specifically apply to one company or one industry ... this is not just about one company but the whole (of) society have to work on it."

NIO car at Shanghai motor show
NIO car at Shanghai motor show

NIO and Tesla are now among the most valuable car companies in the world; worth more than Ford, despite having sales that are still in the thousands, not the millions. Both are at the forefront of the race to develop the most advanced proprietary knowledge on Autonomous Driving.

William Li is a serial entrepreneur and since NIO's founding in 2014 he has emerged as one of China's best known tech leaders. NIO is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Mr Li has drawn comparisons to the founder of e-commerce platform Alibaba Jack Ma, who also has a sizable footprint in both China and the US.

But Mr Ma's business empire has been under increasing pressure from China's financial and anti-monopoly regulators, and many are worried that other Chinese tech firms might be next.

Asked if he was nervous about such prominence and being labelled a Jack Ma of the EV industry, Mr Li told the BBC "we are a customer based company and I never worried about such things".

These are nervous times though for firms that face regulatory demands in the US and China, and have global ambitions that span both countries.

NIO was worried about talking to the BBC. Particularly after a recent campaign in China's state run media, attacking the corporation for its coverage of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Covid-19.

One senior media executive at the firm told us they didn't want to be the only EV company featured in any BBC coverage of China's efforts to deal with pollution.

Months of negotiations about trying to secure an interview with the CEO William Li only proved successful when I was able to meet him in person.

NIO is leading the charge for China in an industry that it hopes to revolutionise. It has the backing of global investors, but also an arm of the Chinese government, which helped keep it afloat in 2019.

One other media executive at the firm told me that drawing international attention to their efforts is "a balancing act".