Phonemaker Xiaomi is spending 10 times the industry average to break into China’s EV market and challenge Elon Musk’s Tesla

Xiaomi, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of smartphones, wants to become a serious player in the fiercely competitive EV industry, currently dominated by Elon Musk’s Tesla and the Warren Buffett-backed BYD. Its strategy? Invest billions of dollars—ten times more than its competitors—into its first prototype.

Xiaomi has teased its expansion to electric cars for years. In March 2021, the company announced $10 billion in investment over ten years to eventually offer “quality smart electric vehicles.” Xiaomi got state approval in August to start making EVs, Reuters reported at the time. Then, in November, state-owned automaker BAIC Group revealed in a regulatory filing that it would be making Xiaomi’s first cars.

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun, in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV aired over the weekend, revealed just how much the company is spending to get even just one model together. The company has devoted 3,400 engineers and 10 billion RMB ($1.4 billion) towards its prototype EV. That’s ten times the labor and investment automakers generally devote to a new model, Lei said.

Automaking is a new foray for Xiaomi, founded in 2010. The company currently makes both consumer electronics and household appliances. Xiaomi is one of the top five smartphone brands globally, alongside Apple, Samsung, Oppo, and Vivo. It was also the only brand in the top five to grow year-on-year in the third quarter of 2023, according to Counterpoint Research. Xiaomi accounted for 14% of global phone shipments last quarter, behind Samsung and Apple.

In his CCTV interview, Lei argued that his smartphone company is well-placed to break into the EV market. On Sunday, Lei said EVs combine elements of the traditional automobile and consumer electronics industries, and cited comments from an unnamed auto company executive to him describing electric cars as a smartphone with four wheels attached.

China is home to the world’s largest EV market, and manufacturers like Tesla and BYD have periodically engaged in fierce price wars to win market share. That’s putting pressure on China’s loss-making EV startups. Nio, for example, lost about $11,300 for every car it delivered last quarter, according to its earnings.

Then there’s the speed that companies need to release new models. Zhang Fan, head of design for state-owned automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group, suggested earlier this month that Chinese automakers need to design cars twice as fast as established companies if they want to keep up. “With the same amount of time, we’ve been evolving twice while the establishment only [does] once,” he said at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Design conference.

On Sunday, Lei admitted that he was worried that Xiaomi’s EVs may not get any traction in the market. But he put on a brave face as well, suggesting that he was also concerned that Xiaomi would not be able to keep up with demand, potentially leading to a two-year wait time for customers.

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