NANJING, China — When setting up a would-be Tesla rival in China, a couple of factors are key.
A fledgling electric vehicle maker needs, of course, oodles of cash. It also must have unblinking government backing. And, crucially, it must be steeped in entrepreneurial ambition.
None of that is in short supply in the world's biggest auto market. EV startups with unfamiliar names are mushrooming here with abandon, seeking to sell cars not just in their own backyard but to make the big time in the U.S. as well. Many are likely destined to fall short of their goals, but even a small number of success stories could trigger big shifts in the global auto industry.
Be it boom or bubble, China's EV outbreak is perfectly embodied by one wannabe, Byton.
The aspiring brand was founded only last September. It hasn't sold a single vehicle, and it is still building its first factory, on a muddy field here just northwest of Shanghai. But Byton plans to start selling a high-tech EV crossover in China late next year and, in 2020, ship it stateside.
That vehicle, to be called the M-Byte, is envisaged as a smartphone on wheels.
Concepts are replete with a mammoth dash monitor — more than 4 feet wide and 10 inches high — navigated by gesture control. The battery, offered in two sizes, will deliver a driving range up to 329 miles. And, to boot, it will sticker for a modest $45,000.
If that all sounds too good to be true, executives hope to have their Nanjing factory ramped to peak production of 300,000 vehicles within five years. Oh, and that output will span at least two nameplates — including an upcoming K-Byte sedan with Level 4 autonomous driving ability.
What makes CEO Carsten Breitfeld, a former BMW Group vice president, think he has any chance in pulling it off? In a word, China.
"What we do here, to be honest, is nearly impossible," Breitfeld said at the June opening of Byton's headquarters here. "The only place in the world you can make it is China."
Indeed, China has emerged as a global incubator for next-generation electrified driving and a potent Silicon Valley rival. The roster of upstarts is long and growing. Beyond Byton, there is Nio, Singulato Motors, Xiaopeng Motors (commonly known as Xpeng) and Weltmeister (also known as WM Motor). Each is virtually unknown overseas; each aspires to be the next Tesla.
Byton's founder and co-chairman, Feng Changge, is a Chinese auto dealer who was inspired to start making cars for himself after a one-hour sit-down with Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Feng is a poster child for the zeitgeist sweeping the nation. "Every startup story begins with a dream," he said. "This is an era of heroes. Big or small, we all have a dream to become a hero."
But survival, let alone hero status, is still a long shot for most of these startups. The field is crowded, and the technology is still in its infancy. Moreover, the growing pains for Tesla, which is still struggling with mass production and has yet to book an annual profit, are sober warnings of the hurdles ahead.