The new guard: Tesla’s biggest startup rivals and their wealthy, eccentric founders

Elon Musk better watch his back – these equally enigmatic electric car makers are hot on his tail.

In an automotive industry dominated by legacy brands and familiar faces, it’s hard not to be captivated by the meteoric rise of Tesla and the oddball antics of its billionaire founder, Elon Musk.

The electric car maker grabs headlines for everything from its highly secretive sales figures, to its skyrocketing stock prices, to Musk’s unfiltered Twitter declarations.

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Equal parts Bond villain, genius inventor and Hollywood star, Musk’s unique charms are undoubtedly one of the contributing factors – and possibly even the driving force – behind Tesla’s success.

But Tesla has dominated the spotlight for so long that some other viable disruptors can get lost in its slipstream, relegated to simply being ‘Tesla competitors’ (after all, that’s why you clicked on this article, wasn’t it?).

In the interests of encouraging a little healthy competition in the innovator space, we’ve rounded up the challengers to watch – each of them possessing a certain je ne sais quoi to rival Musk’s own enigmatic energy.


THE FOUNDER

CEO Robert Bollinger is an industrial designer with a unique background in advertising, creative direction, organic haircare and… cattle farming?

Yes, you read right – his time spent running a grass-fed beef farm in New York’s Catskills Mountains was part of what inspired him to create a range of practical utilities that were also environmentally friendly.

Above: Robert Bollinger.

THE COMPANY

Officially launching its first design at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, startup Bollinger Motors has a focus on utilities and trucks that are American-made and “all electric, all aluminum, all wheel drive”.

Founder Robert Bollinger leads a team of more than 30 engineers, strategists and designers, all based in Detroit, Michigan.

THE CARS

The Bollinger B1, a sport utility truck, the Bollinger B2, a dual-cab pickup truck, the B2 Chassis Cab, a chassis-cab truck platform, and the patent-pending E-Chassis, the world’s first and only Class 3 electric platform.

The B1 and B2 boast an EPA range of 200 miles (321km) and will be priced from USD$125,000 (around AU$175,000).

Production will commence in the second half of 2020 with deliveries starting in 2021 and the United States will serve as the launch market, but Bollinger says it will eventually work with independent dealers around the world to sell its vehicles.

Wang Chuanfu, a billionaire Chinese businessman, serves as founder and CEO for BYD.

According to Forbes, he was born in a village in one of China’s poorest regions and was orphaned as a teenager and raised by his sister and brother.

Miraculously, despite his circumstances, Mr Wang still made his way to university where he became interested in rechargeable battery technology. In the mid 1990s, convinced his cousin to loan him the money he used to started BYD.

Mr Wang’s brother who helped raise him now works as a senior executive at BYD, while the cousin who gave him the loan maintains a stake in BYD, worth an estimated US$3.5 billion.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway portfolio also bought an 8 per cent share in BYD in 2008 and today it has a 25 per cent stake in the company reportedly worth billions.

Above: BYD’s Wang Chuanfu. Image: BYD Twitter

THE COMPANY

With its initials standing for ‘Build Your Dreams’, BYD was launched as a rechargeable battery company in 1995, predominantly providing batteries for Nokia phones.

Its automotive arm, BYD Auto, was founded in 2003 and while these days BYD Auto is focussed on all-electric cars and sustainable solutions, it also produces both hybrids and internal-combustion-engined cars.

Today, it has factories in China, Hungary, California, Brazil, India, Japan and France and it recently partnered with Toyota to co-develop electric vehicles and is also looking to supply Ford’s Chinese operations with electric car batteries.

THE CARS

Along with developing monorails and commercial vehicles, BYD manufactures a range of passenger vehicles targeting the mass market in China and beyond.

Its most recent releases include the Han EV luxury sedan, which boasts an NEDC range of 605km on a single charge and will be initially sold in China for a starting price of 255,800 Chinese Yuan (AU$51,183).

BYD Auto also recently unveiled the Tang EV, a compact, all-wheel-drive SUV for the Norwegian market which will enter production in November 2020.

Above: BYD’s Tang EV.


THE FOUNDER

Danish-American automotive designer Henrik Fisker previously worked for BMW AG and Aston Martin – where he worked on icons like the Z8 roadster, V8 Vantage and DB9 – before going out on his own as an electric vehicle entrepreneur.

His love of cars can be traced back to a Maserati Bora he spotted as a young boy growing up in Denmark. Now serving as Fisker Inc.’s founder, chairman and CEO, Mr Fisker has claimed his company’s car’s will be “way better than any electric car and way better than Tesla”.

Mr Fisker also works with former General Motors executive Bob Lutz and former Boeing executive Gilbert Villarrea on VLF Automotive, which designs custom high-performance cars.

Above: Henrik Fisker.

THE COMPANY

Fisker Inc, began life as Fisker Automotive in 2007, debuting with an all-electric sports car called the Fisker Karma, priced from more than USD$100,000 and boasting several celebrity spokespeople (Leonardo DiCaprio was a fan). However, after poor sales, production issues and financial challenges, Fisker Automotive was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2013.

It was, however, later acquired by Chinese auto parts manufacturer Wanxiang Group and renamed Karma Automotive, and it continues to produce electric sports cars out of California, including its debut model, the Karma Revero GT.

Meanwhile, Henrik Fisker relaunched his own ambitions under the Fisker Inc. badge in 2016, with Los Angeles-based company now aiming to create the “world’s most emotional and sustainable vehicles” from recycled materials, offering competitive pricing and a flexible subscription ownership program to its potential customers.

In July 2020, it was announced Fisker Inc would merge with the Spartan Energy Acquisition firm to go public, with the EV start-up earning a valuation of USD$2.9 billion.

THE CARS

Fisker Inc.’s main product is the Fisker Ocean, an all-electric SUV that will be priced below $40,000 (USD) when it launches in 2022.

With a claimed electric range of 250 to 300 miles (400-482km) and DC-fast charging capabilities, Fisker claims the car will be available in both right-hand drive and left-hand drive configurations from 2022 onwards, with test drives available from 2021.

The Fisker Ocean will come with an optional solar panelled roof, vegan interior made from recycled products and a sales pathway that will bypass the traditional dealership model.

Above: The Fisker Ocean.


THE FOUNDER

Li Auto was founded by its current CEO, 39-year-old Chinese businessman Li Xiang.

Described as “one of the youngest of China’s first generation of Internet entrepreneurs” by CNTechPost, he kicked off his automotive and entrepreneurial career by founding Chinese online automotive hub Autohome in 2005.

Autohome became a publicly traded company on the New York Stock exchange in 2013 and is now estimated to be worth US$9.4 billion.

In 2015, Li Xiang founded Lixiang Automotive – or Li Auto as it’s known today – and its first production car, the Lixiang ONE plug-in hybrid SUV, went on sale four years later.

THE COMPANY

Li Auto is Beijing-based but boasts 21 showrooms across China, with plans to grow that number even further by the end of 2020.

In July 2020, it launched an initial public offering on NASDAQ of up to US$950 million. It produces its sole offering, the Li ONE, out of China’s eastern city of Changzhou.

THE CARS

As of April 2020, Li Auto had reportedly delivered more than 4500 units of its first and only mass production car, the ONE, which uses what Li Auto describes as “EREV (extended range EV) technology”.

The ONE is unique in that the energy it uses to power its electric motors comes from either a battery pack or a secondary system consisting of a 1.2-litre turbo-charged internal combustion engine and 100kW generator.

According to a report from Future Car, Li Auto “cites limited access to EV charging infrastructure in China as one reason for building the Li ONE with an smaller internal combustion engine that’s used to generate electricity to charge the vehicle’s battery, but it also helps to extend the overall range”

This provides the Li ONE with an NEDC range of 800km. It is sold in China for a starting price of 328,000 Chinese Yuan (AU$65,659).

Above: The Li ONE.


THE FOUNDER

Lordstown Motors was founded by Steve Burns, the former founder and CEO of Workhorse, another electric car company founded in 1998 with the aim of producing electric utilities and vans.

Burns founded Lordstown in 2019 and immediately licensed Workhorse’s technology for an all-electric pickup in exchange for Workhorse having a 10 per cent equity stake in his new venture.

One of the key reasons Lordstown Motors was formed was to save a closed car factory in Lordstown, Ohio, which had been owned and operated by General Motors since 1966.

The sale of the factory was finalised for US$20 million in November 2019.

Above: Lordstown Motors CEO Steve Burns.

THE COMPANY

Named after the former General Motors factory in Ohio in which its manufacturing operations are based, Lordstown Motors has an executive team made up of former employees from Tesla, Toyota, Hyundai, GM, Formula One and Volkswagen.

THE CARS

Lordstown’s sole product is the Lordstown Endurance, a lightweight electric pickup which the company claims is the first commercial vehicle to feature four in-wheel hub motors for “true” four wheel drive.

The Endurance is due to commence deliveries in 2021 and will be priced from US$52,500 (AU$73,609) with more than 250 miles (402km) of range according to the EPA cycle.


THE FOUNDER

Utah-born entrepreneur Trevor Milton founded the Nikola Motor Company when he was just 29 years of age, following a childhood fraught with financial hardship as a result of his late mother’s cancer battle.

A university dropout and a Mormon, Mr Milton has been an advocate for hydrogen fuel-cell technology in transportation since the age of six, when he recalls having a life-altering conversation with an engineer.

“He told me that maybe one day they’ll be smart enough to build a locomotive semi-truck, and that was my light bulb,” Milton told Trucks.com.

“I decided right then that someday I’d built that locomotive semi. The next 30 years were all about preparing myself.”

Above: Trevor Milton

THE COMPANY

From its inception in 2014, Nikola has worked to develop semi trucks with both pure electric and hydrogen electric powertrains.

The company was named after Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. Obviously, Mr Milton had to take his first name, because Elon Musk already had dibs on the surname.

In June 2020, Nikola went public and was listed on the NASDAQ index, with valuation of US$12 billion.

Nikola has said its pre-orders represent more than US$10 billion in revenue and the company is forecasting the production of 30,000 fuel cell electric trucks by 2027.

THE CARS

Along with commercial trucks including the Nikola One, Nikola Two and Nikola Tre, the company’s first passenger vehicle is the Nikola Badger electric pick-up.

Available for preorder with deliveries expected to commence in 2022, the Badger boasts a combined 600 miles (965km) of range, 4×4 capabilities and a peak power output of around 675kW.

Above: The Nikola Badger.


THE FOUNDER

NIO was founded by William Li, who is often dubbed “the Elon Musk of China” and “the godfather of the transport sector” in China, and who boasts an estimated net worth of US$1.9 billion, according to Forbes.

The 45-year-old was born on a dairy farm in provincial China and saved up money to attend Peking University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

In 2000, he founded Bitauto, a content and marketing provider for the automotive industry, before selling it in 2013. He founded NIO as an electric car start up only a year later and still serves as its CEO today.

Above: William Li and the NIO EC6.

THE COMPANY

NIO’s Chinese name translates to “Blue Sky Coming”, a nod to the company’s focus on zero emissions vehicles.

In September 2018, NIO launched on the New York Stock Exchange with a valuation of US$6.42 billion.

In April 2020, the company secured a US$1 billion investment from a handful of Chinese state-owned companies in exchange for moving its headquarters from Shanghai to the city of Hefei, where it already operates a factory.

THE CARS

NIO launched with the limited-run EP9, an electric two-door sports car, but soon moved to all-electric SUVs, including the ES8 large SUV, the ES6 crossover SUV and, most recently, the EC6 fastback SUV.

According to NEDC testing, the EC6 boasts 615km of range, the ES8 offers 580km of range and the ES6 has 610km of range.

NIO also has an autonomous concept vehicle known as the Eve.

Above: The Nio ES6.


THE FOUNDER

Rivian Automotive was founded by young gun RJ Scaringe, a car-loving, 30-something father with a love for the great outdoors and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from prestigious tech college MIT.

Scaringe’s conflicting love of nature and automobiles was one of the key reasons he founded Rivian.

“It was frustrating knowing the things I loved were simultaneously the things that were making the air dirtier and causing all sorts of issues, everything from geopolitical conflict to the smog to climate change,” Scaringe told Forbes.

THE COMPANY

Founded by Scaringe in 2009, the Michigan-based Rivian started off by designing an electric sports coupe but quickly changed tack to focus on a product Scaringe believed had wider appeal – luxury, all-electric utility vehicles for people with active lifestyles.

Initially, Scaringe raised US$450 million in funding from investors, before going on to secure an additional US$1.3 billion in 2019 from backers including Amazon and Ford and, most recently, raising another US$2.5 billion in early 2020.

With offices in the US, UK and Canada, Rivian conducts its manufacturing operations at a former Mitsubishi plant in Illinois.

THE CARS

Rivian makes the R1T, an electric pickup truck priced from US$69,000 (AU$96,672) and the R1S, a seven-seat sport utility starting at US$72,500 (AU$101,576).

Both cars are available for preorder now and deliveries are expected in mid-2021.

Rivian has also signed a deal to supply Amazon with as many as 100,000 electric vans from 2021 onwards.

Above: The Rivian R1S.

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