Chinese language Tesla rival XPeng is planning new automobiles and focusing on a distant future with robots and flying vehicles

GUANGZHOU, China – For the foreseeable future, Chinese electric car start-up XPeng is trying to increase sales in the world’s largest car market.

But the Guangzhou, China-based company is also researching areas like robotics and flying cars that could play a role in its longer-term goals.

In an interview broadcast with CNBC on Thursday, He Xiaopeng, XPeng’s founder and CEO, spoke about the ongoing chip shortage in the auto industry and why Tesla’s Chinese rival is investing in robotics and airborne transportation.

Earlier this year, XPeng showed off a second prototype of a flying passenger car that has reportedly been in development for eight years. And on Tuesday it took the covers off a four-legged “robot unicorn” when it entered new business areas.

“As technology evolves, the shape of mobility will evolve from wheels to wings, propellers, 4 legs or 2 feet,” he said, according to a CNBC translation of his comments in Mandarin. “Technology is supposed to help people lead better and happier lives. That has always been my goal.”

The XPeng founder predicts that all automakers will become both automakers and robotics companies, a process that he believes could take 10 to 30 years. XPeng sees robots as a means of transport “in a slow and random environment”.

“As it gets better and smarter in the long run, it could help us with some simple, repetitive tasks. As the transport tool keeps getting smarter, it could help us take on some tasks. That’s how we imagine it, ”he called.

XPeng’s competitor Tesla is also investing in robotics. Last month, CEO Elon Musk said the company would build a humanoid robot called the Tesla Bot. Other companies have also shown robots, including Boston Dynamics and Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi.

Flying cars

The X2, XPeng’s second flying car prototype and the first that can carry a passenger, was unveiled in July.

Founder He said the company is building a research and development team that “will have a few hundred people.”

“We want to introduce a flying car that can take off or land vertically, a flying car at low to medium altitude.”

A number of auto companies, including China-based Hyundai and Geely, develop aircraft. Other companies like EHang from Guangzhou are also working on passenger drones.

The XPeng founder said the company would hold a press conference in the future, maybe a year from now, to discuss dimensions and prices and to take pre-orders for its flying car.

Lack of chips, new products

Like many automakers, XPeng is affected by the global shortage of semiconductors for vehicles. The company said its vehicle deliveries in August were down from July. XPeng has three cars in the market – the flagship P7 sedan, a cheaper sedan called the P5, and the G3 Sports Utility Vehicle.

The supply chain is the “biggest challenge” for the company, but he sees it as an opportunity to build the automaker’s resilience.

“The pandemic has created a shortage of semiconductor chips, which is the biggest blow to our business. I assume that the chip shortage will subside in about 18 months. The situation could get worse in the near future, ”he said.

“XPeng is a very young company. I see this as an early test. If we can meet the challenge and prepare for what is to come, we will do even better when our sales reach 300,000 or 500,000 cars a year.”

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

In the meantime, the company has promised to push ahead with the release of new models. On September 15, the company will officially unveil its mass-market P5 sedan after it was unveiled in April. And from 2023, XPeng plans to launch at least two to three new vehicle models each year. In preparation for this, the electric car manufacturer is expanding its own production capacities.

The CEO said the company will launch more cars in the future in the 200,000 yuan (30,968) to 400,000 yuan range. Right now, its cheapest car, the P5, starts at 160,000 yuan. He also said his models could include larger 5-seat or 7-seat models. The company does not yet have a 7-seater model.

XPeng has tried to differentiate itself from its domestic competitors by developing its own semi-autonomous driving functions in a system called XPilot. Its latest version, XPilot 3.0, can be built into its cars as an option and rivals Tesla’s autopilot.

In the first quarter of the year, XPeng stated that it was recording sales for the first time with software, which also includes the assisted driving system XPilot. The founder said that while the bulk of XPeng’s revenue comes from hardware now, software will be a “growing part” of it.

“My idea is that after the introduction of XPilot 4.0 we will focus more on our software business,” he said, referring to the next version of his limited feature suite for autonomous driving.

– CNBC’s Penny Chen contributed to this report

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