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Over the past 75 years, many startups have tried to crack the code and enter the U.S. automotive market. Virtually none have succeeded.
Tesla is the rare exception, having taken advantage of the emerging interest in battery-electric vehicles. Its sales nearly doubled last year, to 960,172 vehicles. And with two more plants opening — in Berlin and Austin, Texas — it’s expected to quickly blast through the 1 million mark this year. That’s providing a note of hope for the dozen or more competitors hoping to match its success.
Long-skeptical investors have recently shown great readiness to embrace the most promising newcomers. But some are struggling for capital, and their vehicles may not make it into production, analysts warned.
“The potential some of these startups have is that they’re breaking into a nascent EV market that has doubled in size this past year and is ready to take off,” said Sam Abuelsamid, the principal auto analyst for Guidehouse Insight.
“There is suddenly a vibrant market that traditional manufacturers have been slow to tap into,” Abuelsamid said, adding that “the window of opportunity is a narrow one and closing fast,” as companies like General Motors, Ford, Hyundai and Volkswagen prepare to unleash scores of new, long-range battery-electric vehicles of their own by mid-decade.
Here’s a look at some of the strongest and weakest of the EV startups, as well as a few others yet to clearly show whether they can plug in and light up the market.
Rivian is arguably the strongest of all the new startups, most analysts agree. The company has piles of cash and the backing of early investors like Ford and Amazon. Amazon’s Prime service has an outstanding order for 100,000 Rivian delivery trucks. And Rivian’s R1T pickup — which was named Motor Trend Truck of the Year — is now on sale. Production hiccups worried investors, but it still has a market capitalization north of $90 billion, more than GM or Ford.
Lucid CEO and Chief Technology Officer Peter Rawlinson was the man who whipped the original Tesla Model S into shape — and that helped him set new benchmarks for his startup’s own Lucid Air sedan. Two versions of the initial launch edition are now on sale, one with 1,100 horsepower, the other delivering over 500 miles of range, an industry best. The price tag? An exotic $160,000. But Lucid has plans for a mix of more mainstream sedans and SUVs.
Fisker takes its name from Henrik Fisker, who won kudos as a designer for Aston Martin. He launched his first brand with the plug-in Karma sports car. The company crashed spectacularly, but Fisker, a Danish-born entrepreneur, is back with a new startup focused solely on battery-electric vehicles — and an unusual business model. The Ocean SUV was designed in house, but its production will be outsourced to avoid the multibillion-dollar cost of building a factory. Future models, now under development, will follow the same path.
Polestar is a little different from other names on this list because it is a spinoff of Volvo and its Chinese parent, Geely. “But they’re still a standalone brand,” Abuelsamid said, which will have to rise or fall on its own merits. Polestar’s first model was a limited-edition, high-performance plug-in hybrid, but the Polestar 2 SUV and all future products will be purely electric.
Neo, one of several domestic Chinese EV startups, has strong aspirations to enter the U.S. market — and an unusual business model that will either make or break it, analysts suggested. After it struggled for cash in 2019, it has a big infusion, growing sales and a design that relies on swapping batteries so motorists don’t have to wait around while charging. The approach has its drawbacks — but it could prove useful for fleet and commercial buyers.
VinFast, Vietnam’s first real car company, was formed in 2017 and had its first model, a gas-powered SUV, on sale two years later. Now it’s focusing exclusively on battery-electric vehicles, showing off two at the recent L.A. Auto Show. It just went through a major management shake-up, but “if a company from any country in the world could make it happen, it’s the Vietnamese,” said Michael Dunne, the head of the consulting firm ZoZo Go. “They are the most tenacious, ambitious people on the planet.”
Canoo designers certainly don’t play it safe. Its minivans move passengers right up to the nose, much like the old VW Microbus, taking advantage of a skateboard-like platform with motors and batteries mounted underneath. That yields a massive interior for passengers and cargo. Canoo’s products have generated plenty of buzz, but “it’s still unclear people will want to buy them,” Abuelsamid said.
Atlis is one of an assortment of startups set to roll out all-electric pickups, although its XT primarily will target fleet and commercial customers who need heavy-duty capabilities. But what many observers are focusing on is the unusual battery-tech Atlis is developing. Its square cells are designed to handle up to a megawatt of power, meaning they could charge up as fast as a driver could fill the gas tank on a regular pickup.
Faraday Future was, not that many years ago, seen as the next Tesla. It rolled out a series of crowd-pleasing concept vehicles, including the FF91 supercar, but it has so far failed to bring anything close to production. After its Chinese billionaire founder pulled out, it had to halt work on an assembly plant in Arizona. Ever since then, it has bounced from one plan to another and continues to struggle to find cash.
Byton has suffered similar setbacks to Faraday Future’s. It was seen as extremely promising when it debuted its M-Byte concept at the Consumer Electronics Show just two years ago, but constant management turnover, cash shortages and other problems have crippled the project. The company is abandoning its U.S. headquarters and retreating to China.
Bollinger had a quirky genesis, with its founder wanting an environmentally friendly work truck for his farm in New York state. Like the Atlis XT, the Bollinger B2 pickup and the B1 SUV are aimed at heavy-duty applications, with massive towing and stump-pulling capabilities. But production is way behind schedule, even though Bollinger set up a small operation in suburban Detroit, and the company is reported to be short on cash.
Lordstown Motors seemed to be on its way to stardom with its Endurance commercial pickup. Then, short-seller Hindenburg Research released a report claiming that Lordstown’s advance sales numbers were “fake,” an allegation that the company effectively acknowledged. Cash raised through a so-called SPAC deal vanished, and the company had to sell its Ohio factory. But Lordstown could yet survive, because Foxconn — which bought the factory — has said it might contract to build the Endurance.
Paul A. Eisenstein is an NBC News contributor who covers the auto industry.
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