Pushing ahead on the development of its first battery-electric sports car, Aston Martin will partner up with Chinese consumer electronics firm LeEco.
The two hope to have their first vehicle, based on Aston Martin’s Rapide S model, in production by 2018. But the venture could also tie up with another aspiring electric vehicle manufacturer, Faraday Future, Aston CEO Andy Palmer said during a news conference in Frankfurt, Germany.
Tying up with LeEco “brings Aston Martin’s electric car project forward,” said Palmer, who joined the British sports car company in 2014 after serving as global product planning chief for Nissan Motor Co. – where he also oversaw the Japanese maker’s electrification efforts.
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LeEco, which produces a range of consumer electronics goods, as well as branded content for the Internet, will provide the powertrain and lithium-ion battery pack for use in the electrified version of the Aston Martin Rapide.
It also would help promote the new battery-car in its home, Chinese market. Facing endemic air pollution problems, the Beijing government has been pressing the auto industry to switch to electric propulsion. China last year became the world’s largest market for battery-based vehicles, ahead of the United States, according to industry data.
“In China we have around 300 million people who visit our website. We could advertise the Aston Martin for free. And we can use celebrities to promote our vehicle. This is the way we do business,” said Lei Ding, co-founder of LeEco’s auto division, and previously an executive with both Volkswagen and General Motors.
Since his arrival at Aston Martin, Palmer has been pushing to reverse years of financial struggle, in part by expanding the marque’s line-up into new market segments. That includes not only the battery-powered Rapide but also what will become Aston’s first SUV, based on the DBX concept vehicle unveiled at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show.
The DBX is expected to become the brand’s best-selling model – much as has happened at Porsche. Virtually every major high-line luxury car manufacturer, including Bentley, Lamborghini, Maserati and Rolls-Royce, now has a utility vehicle under development.
But a growing number of high-line makers also are exploring their electrification options. Porsche and Audi both have pure battery-electric vehicles under development. The flagship models of Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren all use battery assist systems to deliver peak performance.
But the push into electrification also is encouraging a number of new start-ups, such as Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors. Apple is widely expected to enter the market through its Project Titan program, and Google is hiring manufacturing specialists who may produce a retail version of the maker’s autonomous, battery-powered cars.
With the Beijing government’s blessing, a number of Chinese firms are also entering the electric vehicle segment, from established makers like BYD to start-ups such as Harmony Futeng.
Meanwhile, Chinese billionaire Jia Yuetang has become one of the major investors in a California-based start-up called Faraday Future. The company showed off a high-tech prototype during a well-attended preview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Aston and LeEco indicated they may assist Faraday’s development program.
“Aston can offer expertise in ride, handling refinement and those sorts of things,” said Palmer, during his Wednesday morning news conference.
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While government mileage and emissions mandates have been a big factor behind the push into electrified vehicles, automotive industry officials contend there are significant advantages that will also appeal to traditional “gearheads.” Electric motors deliver maximum torque the moment they’re turned on, allowing a vehicle like the Tesla Model S to launch from 0 to 60 in as little as 2.9 seconds when equipped with the optional “Ludicrous Mode.”
The downside is that electric motors don’t have quite the visceral roar of a sports car’s classic V-8.
“The sound of an Aston Martin is very graceful, that’s kind of what gives its soul,” acknowledged Will Farquhar, Aston Martin’s strategy chief. “So we are looking at how we can create that soul in an electric vehicle.”
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