Google may have the most self-driving cars on the road and Ford might be testing its driverless vehicles in the most extreme conditions, but Jia Yueting certainly has the most autonomous auto brands under his belt.
The Chinese Internet billionaire owns self-driving EV startup Faraday Future, has a big investment in its stealthy rival Atieva, and has partnered with Aston Martin to build a third EV. Now, Jia just revealed yet another self-driving car, under the LeEco brand.
At a glitzy event in Beijing, Jia and Ding Lei, the man in charge of LeEco’s car business, demonstrated a self-driving concept car called the LeSEE. LeEco (previously LeTV) is Jia’s first firm; it was once known as the Netflix of China, but is now diversifying into smartphones, televisions, and original video content.
During presentations that veered from enthusiastic to accusatory to emotional (Ding at one point said, “We have gone through the process of being laughed at, to being judged, to being trusted by people”), they managed to make some concrete claims. Among them are that the LeSEE sedan’s acceleration, battery range, and top speed would all be superior to the Tesla Model S. However the car, which has a subtly-styled sensor dome on its roof, is limited in its current incarnation to a top speed of 209 kilometers per hour. Ding claimed that the LeSEE “is going to be first self-evolving car in the world [which presumably means that it will have advanced artificial intelligence], with seamless connectivity, ultimate entertainment, and real-time sharing.”
Jia stepped center stage and used his LeEco smartphone to demonstrate two of the LeSEE’s smart car virtues. Via a voice control app on the phone, he asked the car to park itself, and it obliged. Overhead video showed the car reorienting itself so that it ended up between yellow lines marked on the stage.
Video and slides presented at the event suggest that the car would enjoy wireless charging, and would eventually be the workhorse of Yidao Yongche, the Chinese ride-sharing service that LeEco bought last year. One promotional video showed the LeSEE’s steering wheel folding away in autonomous mode, and each of the car’s four passengers watching high-definition screens.
So, where do all these whiz-bang features put LeEco in the world of smart cars? Martin Eberhard, who co-founded Tesla Motors in 2003, said of the launch: “I’m delighted to see so much new electric vehicle activity. It would be even better if these new players would choose to do something original. One of the great things about the automotive market is the diversity of types of vehicles demanded by customers.”
Jia acknowledged the history of me-too offerings, but insisted that the LeSee doesn’t follow that trend. “The Chinese car industry is doing more reverse engineering than engineering,” he said. “A lot of the work is just copying others, but this will change. I say with pride that our first generation LeSEE will be positioned as the most high-end autonomous driving connected car in the world. It’s 100-percent developed by LeEco.”
However, Ding had noted earlier in the event that the LeSEE uses a flexible modular powertrain platform, called Variable Platform Architecture or VPA, developed by Faraday Future. Faraday insists that it is a separate entity from LeEco, and the two firms usually refer to each other as “strategic partners.”
The coziness of that relationship was further revealed when Ding mentioned LeEco’s and Faraday Future’s plan to jointly set up an automated driving research institute in Silicon Valley. The center, to be known as the LeFuture AI Institute, will also have a remote site in Beijing. Faraday Future told IEEE Spectrum that it was too early to provide details on who might lead the institute or when it might open.
Jia said that LeEco would ultimately lead the transformation of the global auto industry. “How can the tiny LeEco disrupt Mercedes or BMW?” he wondered aloud. “The answer is simple. Just like how our televisions disrupted the television industry and our phones are on the road of disrupting Apple. The car that we have here today is not just a car… it is a product of vertical integration and synergy. It’s a connected smart electric ecosystem.”
That ecosystem could eventually result in people watching LeEco videos on LeEco devices while commuting in LeEco cars. But exactly how Jia intends to get to that point is unclear. At the moment, LeEco is developing some competencies in-house (or near-house in the case of its work with Faraday Future) and partnering with or purchasing businesses that can help with key technologies (Atieva), manufacturing (Aston Martin), and marketing (Yidao).
Whether this strategy will continue to work now that it’s obvious that LeEco’s partners will also be its competitors will be interesting to see.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.