Jia Yueting, Forbes’ 2014 best Chinese chief executive officer, drove his futuristic silver FF91 prototype car slowly in the spotlight of Las Vegas. The host asked him to press a button to make the car drive itself to the center stage.
Five seconds passed, but the car remained still.
Jia was unable to leak out a word. The host tried to seize a piece of humor, “It seems the car is a little bit … lazy.”
It was not the most frustrating moment LeEco had experienced. Jia had sent a letter to staff in last November, saying LeEco was facing a shortage of cash due to its “big company disease”.
Jia had expected the launch of his first connected car for mass production to beat his rival Tesla Inc<TSLA.O>, the first electric vehicle company in the world who was also suffering from liquidity problem and record losses in the past 13 years.
Smart-connected services would experience an exponential growth and get fully cover of all vehicles in 15 years, according to Wireless World Research Forum’s estimate, even though it was presented as a risky game fueled by intensive technologies and continuous money injection.
Capital began to aggregate in the area, as Internet companies and carmakers seek for cooperation. China’s three biggest tech giants Baidu Inc<BIDU.O>, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd<BABA.N> and Tencent Holdings Ltd<TCEHY.PK> have all got involved in this war.
Tencent announced in March to hold 5 percent stake in the U.S. electric vehicle manufacturer. Running China’s most popular social media WeChat, the company has developed its own map system and various mobile applications, key components of smart connectivity.
“The high expense of intelligent hardware and network construction could severely squeeze the margins of car makers,” Wei Jianjun, chairman of Great Wall Motor said during an investor briefing for his connected mobility plan.
Tesla surpassed Ford Motor Co <F.N> early this month to be the second largest U.S. auto firm with a market value of around US$50 billion, double that of LeEco. But Tesla still failed to turn from red to black with a US$675 million loss in 2016.
Three fifths of its total assets were financed by debts, much higher than the sector’s average level. High liquid assets were also inadequate to cover its immediate liabilities, according to Research Driven Investing’s ratios. Many start-ups developing connected services told the same story, among which Tesla and LeEco might not be the worst.
Tesla estimated a sharp rise in expenditure to accelerate its growth in smart-connected models. Backed by several international investors including the mutual fund Fidelity, the California-based start-up raised totally over US$1.2 billion for the production of its first mass market Model 3 soon in July.
“The Model 3 is designed for manufacturing,” said Elon Musk, founder of Tesla.
With 373,000 pre-orders globally, Model 3 was priced much lower than the previous Model S and Model X, luxury sedans that strongly supported the development of this latest complete connected model, two analysts of JP Morgan and Citibank said.
Doubts on the profitability of the US$35,000 Model 3 spread, as Musk targeted to build about 430,000 Model 3 by the end of next year, more than all of the electric cars sold worldwide last year.
“Although connected services were seen to generate big sales, most of this value will be offset by falling sales from legacy features such as navigation, entertainment and safety systems,” analysts of PWC said in a report.
“Model 3 would be the straw that break Tesla’s back,” said Mark Spiegel, founder of Stanphyl Capital.
Financed all by domestic capital instead, LeEco had mostly relied on Jia’s assets. It has successfully raised around US$2.2 billion in March from new investors including the property developer Sunac China Holdings<1918.HK>.
“Automotive is a high-risk capital-intensive industry that asks for more caution and studies,” said Sunac China chairman Sun Hongbin, who still remained on the fence.
LeEco’s cars still did not have much presence among Chinese customers compared with Tesla, whose products were imposed an additional 25 percent import tariff in its second-largest market.
“While car buyers may not accept the connected cars, they do love the Tesla brand,” said an industry analyst in a Nasdaq report.
Both Musk and Jia have big ambition of their business.
Musk, the 46-year-old founder of Paypal and NASA’s rocket partner SpaceX, is often compared with Apple’s Steve Jobs by the public. The billionaire CEO of Tesla wants to colonize Mars and transform the world’s energy system. The urgent debut of Model 3 is part of his great plan to “accelerate the transition to sustainable energy”.
Jia defines his LeEco kingdom as an ecosystem, a blueprint designed in 2014 that covers seven different fields from television, mobile phones to connected cars.
Jia has obtained 70,000 to 80,000 billion yuan (around US$11,600 billion) investment in the past three years, but until now it seemed all people who paid for his dream would suffocate together with him.
After sold a car factory in the U.S., the conglomerate planned to sell a prized property asset of US$420 million in Beijing acquired last year amid a severe cash crunch. LeEco’s subsidiary Yidao alleged earlier its parent company “misappropriate” 1.3 billion yuan (US$189 million) to cover its debts.
Jia has pledged to pay more attention to the listed business, Leshi<300104.SZ>, the Netflix of China whose trade still remained in suspension, amid the first fall in 2016 profit after year’s double-digit rise.
“The future, be great or dead,” Jia said.
(This is a team work by Aubrey Zeng, Silvia Luo and Raffaele Huang)