Electric-Vehicle Startup XPeng Bets On Tech That Tesla Rejects
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Electric-Vehicle Startup XPeng Bets On Tech That Tesla Rejects

One of three U.S.-listed Chinese EV makers, it is relying on innovation to overtake its rivals.

By Trefor Moss
Fri, Apr 16, 2021 11:45amGrey Clock 4 min

GUANGZHOU—Once a Tesla Inc. fan who owned four of its vehicles, He Xiaopeng, co-founder of Chinese electric-vehicle startup XPeng Inc., now wants to overtake the car company that originally inspired him.

While acknowledging Tesla as an inspiration, Mr. He said XPeng—one of three Chinese EV companies listed in the U.S.—can win using innovation, an area in which Chinese technology companies have become increasingly formidable.

“We have a saying in China,” Mr. He said in an interview Wednesday at XPeng’s headquarters in the southern city of Guangzhou. “To defeat someone, you need to do something different.”

XPeng, alongside its U.S.-listed peers Li Auto Inc. and Nio Inc., has taken investors on a wild ride over the past eight months.

The company’s August listing on the New York Stock Exchange valued it at US$8 billion. By November its value had jumped to nearly $58 billion. Now it is back down to about US$27 billion. In March, the Shanghai-based research firm Hurun Report said Mr. He was worth US$11 billion.

XPeng unveiled its third production vehicle, the P5 sedan, in Guangzhou on Wednesday. Deliveries of the P5, which is said to have approx. 600km driving range, are due to start this year. The company didn’t announce the car’s price, though it will be lower than the in-production P7 sedan, which starts at roughly $60,000 and is a direct competitor of the made-in-China Tesla Model 3, which costs the equivalent of about $66,900.

XPeng began low-volume exports to Europe in December and plans to enter the U.S. market in the future.

Considered by some analysts as the most tech-centric of China’s EV players, Xpeng deploys a voice-operated user interface in its cars, and an autonomous-driving system for use on stretches of highway with 5G internet coverage.

It recently tested the software by sending a fleet of its cars on a 3540km trip from Guangzhou to Beijing, and logging 0.71 human-operator interventions per 100 km—a new benchmark for self-driving cars, the company claimed. On the roughly 320km Shanghai to Nanjing leg attended by the Journal, the car’s human operator intervened once, swerving when the car failed to notice a bus changing lanes ahead.

XPeng claims its autonomous-driving systems, which have previously used radar and cameras, will be significantly enhanced by the addition of lidar, which uses lasers to scan the vehicle’s surroundings—and which Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has dismissed as a waste of money. Xpeng says the new P5 is the first Chinese EV that comes with lidar as standard.

XPeng sold 13,340 vehicles in the first quarter of 2021 and likely needs to sell as many cars every month to break even, said Tu Le, founder of Sino Auto Insights, a consulting firm. Mr. He said in the interview that he was focused on building revenue and growing XPeng’s reputation, rather than on profit.

Tesla sold 69,280 vehicles in China in the January-to-March period, according to the China Passenger Car Association, while Nio sold 20,060 cars.

XPeng is in a strong position as a car company whose main asset is its software, Mr. Le said. “The post-1990s generation in China are all digital natives, and they like Chinese brands,” he said. “What XPeng is doing plays very well with that young Chinese consumer.”

At a moment of rising nationalism in China, homegrown brands have generally been gaining ground on Western ones among local consumers, from clothing to cars.

Mr. He this month announced plans for a third XPeng plant in Wuhan; its second plant, in Guangzhou, is still being built. The three plants will give the company an expected production capacity of 300,000 cars a year.

XPeng last year unveiled a prototype flying car that Mr. He said was far from being a gimmick and potentially key to the company’s future. The company’s growing fleet of EVs is just a starting point for a company with ambitions to define “the future commute,” he said.

Originally a computer programmer, the 43-year-old Mr. He, who comes from the central city of Huangshi, founded UCWeb Inc., a mobile-browser developer, in 2004. He sold the company to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. a decade later in what was then China’s biggest internet merger, and worked as a senior Alibaba executive until 2017 before leaving to run XPeng, which he had co-founded as an investor in 2014.

The birth of his son in early 2017 jolted Mr. He into starting something new, he said. He settled on EVs despite having no automotive background and, by his own admission, regarding the overheated EV sector as “a crazy business.”

“I wanted my son to think that he had a cool dad,” he said.

Unable to persuade Alibaba to let him develop an EV in-house, Mr. He joined XPeng as full-time chief executive and brought the e-commerce giant on board as an investor. Alibaba owns 12.5% of the company, while Mr. He holds 22.7%. Alibaba didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. He said he only fully realized the difficulty of teaming software engineers with car mechanics when the company produced its first working prototype in late 2017.

The XPeng team was moved to tears when the vehicle rolled out: Engineers wept with joy because the machine worked, while the software developers were heartbroken because to them the unpainted and incomplete test-model “looked like trash,” Mr. He said.

The experience taught Mr. He and his software colleagues that developing a competitive car would be an arduous, years-long process.

Mr. He said his priority was to build XPeng into a global company rather than to outflank Tesla or other competitors, but there is open enmity between Mr. He and the company that once inspired him.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against a former employee who had quit Tesla to join XPeng, alleging that he had downloaded its Autopilot source code with a view to handing it over to his new employer. XPeng was never a party to the legal case and said it is “confident we have engaged in no wrongdoing.”

In November, Mr. Musk trashed XPeng’s autonomous-driving system, saying on Twitter that “they have an old version of our software” and alleging that intellectual-property theft “was just an XPeng problem. Other companies in China have not done this.”

Mr. He fired back on Weibo. “It seems XPeng’s next-generation autonomous driving architecture…has made someone in the West feel very upset,” he said.

“Elon Musk is an amazing person and a great entrepreneur, despite some flaws,” Mr. He said in the Wednesday interview. Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 15, 2021.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”