Faraday unveils concept electric race car; can it catch Tesla?

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Start-up electric car venture Faraday Future on Monday previewed a technology-heavy concept race car it hopes to develop into a range of connected vehicles that can challenge luxury rivals like Tesla and Audi in the growing global market for non-gasoline cars.

The California-based company, which has backing from Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, has remained tight-lipped about its plans since its launch 18 months ago. Days ahead of this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it still had revealed no details about its debut vehicle, expected for 2017.

Faraday is part of a group of Chinese-funded start-ups hoping to capitalize on disruption in the auto industry amid global regulatory demand for electric or hybrid vehicles, a growing trend of connectivity in cars and a sharp rise in interest in mobility alternatives, such as Uber.

At the center of the new wave of China's electric vehicle (EV) producers is Jia, founder of LeTV 300104.SZ, or Leshi Internet Information & Technology Co. Jia has also funded another California EV start-up, Atieva, and other EV efforts.

His deep pockets have investors speculating about whether Faraday can take on publicly traded Tesla, although executives insist there is room in the expanding market for both companies.

LeTV, whose many areas of focus include film production, smart TVs and consumer electronics, is an advantage for Faraday. Experts believe the technology for self-driving cars will be ready by 2020, and as it is adopted over the following years, there will be more opportunities for drivers to focus on a screen.

Faraday sees a growing market for electric vehicles in the United States, despite low gasoline prices that have curbed consumer demand in the short term. Its ties with China open up that country's fast-growing, second-largest EV market in which others, including Tesla Motors TSLA.O, have struggled.

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Faraday’s senior vice president of R&D and product development, Nick Sampson, told Reuters ahead of the unveiling that the company’s first electric vehicle for consumers would be a premium car built in a $1 billion Nevada manufacturing plant. The plant will be built near Las Vegas beginning in the next few weeks.

“We are building premium pure electric vehicles, that’s what the manufacturing site will produce, and we are demonstrating that over time we will produce a range of vehicles,” Sampson said. He said buyers of owner-operated vehicles will be only one potential market.

“Initially they’ll be sold to owners, but we also see the changing landscape in the industry, there are far more people that will want just mobility in the future,” he said.

With its teardrop shape and aerodynamic tunnels that allow air to flow through the car and cool the batteries, the FFZERO1 Concept race car shown in Las Vegas is not intended to be produced, Sampson said.

“It’s more an illustration of what is possible” with its underlying tech currently being tested in other cars, he said.

Central to that is a proprietary engineering platform model that supports a range of vehicle types, cutting back on development and production time. The adjustable chassis can accommodate strings of batteries that are more easily changed than single batteries. The number of batteries would depend on car size.

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Faraday has been poaching talent from rivals such as Tesla and BMW BMWG.DE. The company, based in Gardena, California, outside Los Angeles, now has more than 550 employees.

Underscoring China's efforts to encourage electric vehicles, both Beijing Electric Vehicle Co, an affiliate of government-owned BAIC Motor Corp Ltd 1958.HK, and state-owned Chinese automaker SAIC Motor Corp 600104.SS have opened research centers in Silicon Valley.

Sampson denied that Faraday’s main competitor would be Tesla, whose premium Model S electric vehicle has shaken up the traditional automaking industry. Like Tesla, Sampson said, Faraday will target buyers of luxury gasoline-powered cars to expand the still-tiny EV market in the United States.

“Thinking about us and Tesla squabbling over 1 percent of the market, it’s not really part of the equation,” he said.

Reporting By Alexandria Sage. Editing by Joe White and David Gregorio