Tesla Now Faces a Billionaire-Backed Competitor Staffed by Its Former Engineers

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Is there room enough for both Tesla Motors and Faraday Future in our electric-car, uh, future? A Chinese billionaire is backing what hopes to be a rival to Elon Musk’s enterprise. The 18-month-old company, based out of Southern California, aims to roll out its first long-range, premium model, comparable to Tesla’s Model S, by 2017. The engineer who oversaw the chassis design of the Model S, Nick Sampson, is now Faraday’s research-and-development chief.

The billionaire backer is Jia Yueting, founder of LeTV (“China’s Netflix”). A partner of Yueting is listed on the incorporating documents as chief executive. There have been some rumors of the company being an Apple-affiliated venture; Apple is said to want to get into the car business. In any case, Sampson has said the car will be more like a smartphone.

Our business model is not based around moving a car out of the dealer,” Sampson said. “We envision this like a smart phone. The revenue starts once you get the device in the owners’ hands. We’re looking at subscriptions and apps and other opportunities.” This could include car-sharing services, which already operate off your phone.

The concept syncs with Yueting’s background in streaming services, combined with his massive Chinese market success in the mobile-phone game. (LeTV claims to have sold 1 million of its Le Superphone in just five months.)

The company plans to sink $1 billion of this cash into a plant they’re currently scouting locations for in Nevada — home to Tesla’s massive ion-battery plant. Faraday is also renovating a former Nissan plant in Southern California to serve as its North American sales HQ.

One reason the start-up is being hailed as a worthy opponent is Faraday’s aggressive poaching of current and former Musk engineers. R&D chief Sampson is snapping up plans to add an additional 100 staff to its current roster of 400 employees before the year’s end, rounding out the top talent, which includes a battery specialist from Space X, Ferrari’s interior designer, and the lead designer of BMW’s i8.

Sampson, acting as the company’s de facto spokesperson, is optimistic about their version of the electric car, despite Tesla’s well-documented struggle to turn a profit on its vehicles. The Wall Street Journal points out that Tesla burns close to $100 million a month, posting ten-consecutive quarterly losses. And with gas prices low and plug-in-the-car infrastructure in short supply, demand for them is not yet expected to pick up.

Of course, cars are already being linked to the internet, with sometimes unnerving implications, as when a Jeep was hacked this summer.

FF, like Tesla, named itself after another influential scientist, Michael Faraday (1791–1867); Albert Einstein is said to have kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall.