August 20, 2015 / 6:50 PM / 3 years ago

Former Ford Europe COO in U.S.-Chinese electric car project

FRANKFURT, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Martin Leach, the former Chief Operating Officer at Ford Europe, is recruiting staff for a new electric car manufacturer based mainly in China and California, the executive told Reuters on Thursday.

Auto industry veteran Leach, who has held senior positions at Mazda and Maserati, declined to say which company is backing the new venture, but said, “It is not a company with a background in the car industry.”

Leach’s project is the latest sign that a shift to electric cars has lowered the barriers to entry into automotive production, where new players such as Tesla have already successfully taken on established manufacturers.

Electric motors for battery-powered vehicles have a simpler design than conventional combustion engines, making them cheaper to produce and assemble. This combined with know-how available from suppliers has opened the door to the new venture, he said.

“It will be electric cars. The company will be based partially in China, and the United States. I don’t feel empowered to give you further details at this point,” Leach said in response to questions about the project.

The venture had been gathering pace “under the radar” and not all the stakeholders are ready to go public with their plans, Leach explained.

It is easier to start a new car company now than 20 years ago, because large automotive suppliers like Bosch and Continental have developed expertise in electric vehicle design, giving new entrants access to key technologies.

“Now you have an ability to engage with suppliers who have competence that was once the sole preserve of established manufacturers,” Leach explained.

The new carmaker will start out making electric cars and may eventually make self-driving cars, Leach said. “I am a proponent of self-driving cars. I think it will end up going there, but that is not the starting point for now.”

Global sales of pure electric cars are still a tiny slice of a market dominated by internal combustion vehicles, mainly because battery powered vehicles have a shorter operating range.

But strides in battery technology will extend their range and this, along with government incentives for sales of low-emission vehicles, have created a viable market, particularly in China, Leach said.

In February 2014, Reuters reported that Hybrid Tech Holding LLC, backed by Hong Kong investor Richard Li, had hired Leach.

Hybrid Tech Holding LLC had sought to buy the assets of Fisker Automotive, a defunct electric car maker which filed for bankruptcy, but ultimately lost out to Chinese auto parts maker Wanxiang Group.

The backer of his car project is not Apple, Leach further said.

In February Reuters reported a source saying Apple is learning how to make a self-driving electric car and is talking to experts at carmakers and automotive suppliers. (Reporting by Edward Taylor, editing by David Evans)

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