It’s barely been five years since the formation of Vietnam’s first domestic car company and less than three since it rolled out its first product, a heavily modified version of the BMW X5. But if anything, the Vietnamese startup takes the word “fast” in its name quite seriously.
VinFast is already set to stop production of gas-powered models. It introduced two battery-electric vehicles at the LA Auto Show last November and unwrapped three more at the Consumer Electronics Show this month. Four of those BEVs will soon go on sale in the U.S. Meanwhile, VinFast is planning to open up a new U.S. assembly plant, with an announcement of its location expected soon.
The carmaker is running at hyperspeed, even though it has gone through several management shake-ups. Most recently, Michael Lohscheller, the former Opel chief, resigned as VinFast’s CEO. He has been replaced by Le Thi Thu Thuy.
“Madame Thuy,” as she is known within the company, has had extensive international experience, graduating from Hanoi Foreign Trade University then receiving an MBA from the International University of Japan. She continued her education at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thuy spent eight years with Lehman Brothers before its collapse, then joined Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest corporate entity. It operates a wide business portfolio, everything from schools to shopping centers to spas and resorts — and now, VinFast.
With Lohscheller’s departure, Thuy takes on the dual role of Vingroup Vice Chair — her previous position — and CEO of VinFast. She spoke with TheDetroitBureau.com following the automaker’s CES debut.
TheDetroitBureau.com: The company is so different from where it seemed to be going in 2018. Let’s talk about the changes and the switch to electrification and the five new BEVs.
Thuy: We’ve come a long way since 2017 and the summer of 2018. We started with it in mind to be a global EV company. We took the path to start with internal combustion engine vehicles so that we could learn how to develop and manufacturer vehicles. That was the fastest and best way for us to learn. We can utilize that knowledge for manufacturing EVs.
TDB: You launched your first vehicle, a version of the BMW X5, in 2019. What has happened since then?
Thuy: We have focused on two main tasks. One is to dominate the (Vietnamese) domestic market, which we did within 18 months. We have now reached 70% to 90% market share. The second mission was to develop a portfolio of electric vehicles that can help us go global. So, today we have platforms all the way from the A segment to E (mini to full-size). We showed five of them at CES, with two introduced at the LA Auto Show last November. We have a sixth that was introduced in Vietnam on Christmas Day.
TDB: How important are the ones you introduced at CES, the VF5, VF6 and VF7?
Thuy: They complete our portfolio and it is powerful because I am not aware of anyone else in the market who has the whole portfolio of electric vehicles in all the different segments that will be available by the middle of next year.
TDB: What price range are you looking at?
Thuy: We are just releasing the prices on the vehicles you saw in L.A., (the VF7 and VF8). It will depend on variant, but they will start at around $40,000 and $60,000.
TDB: You have an intriguing idea about pricing. Those figures don’t include the battery packs, right? Essentially, if I understand, customers will lease the batteries according to how much they expect to use the vehicles?
Thuy: Yes, it is a leasing model that is unique. It is a way for us to get the consumer to switch from internal combustion engine vehicles to EVs because the pricing (of batteries) is still too expensive. There are many hurdles for a consumer wanting to buy an electric vehicle. So we’re doing this to make it easier.
TDB: How does this work?
Thuy: We’re pricing the vehicles at more or less same pricing as (if they had) internal combustion engines of equivalent size. We will lease the batteries at a cost that is no more than what they normally pay to put gasoline in the, minus the cost for electricity. We will have two types of battery leasing schemes. One is flexible, where you pay per kilometer (that you drive). The other is a fixed amount. You can drive as much as you want.
Getting into the American market
TDB: EVs are not a major part of the U.S. market yet.
Thuy: They are not mainstream.
TDB: What is your biggest challenge to get into the U.S. market? Clearly, the U.S. has historically been reluctant to admit new entries.
Thuy: We are a new brand. We need to prove ourselves. But I see the industry is quite open to newcomers at this time. (But) I’m not saying that it will be easy and that there won’t be challenges.
TDB: And how do you think Americans will accept a Vietnamese brand?
Thuy: We did some research and the recognition of Vietnam is great. But, obviously, it’s not well known for technology. But the overall feedback is positive for a Vietnamese brand going into the U.S. So we are emphasizing our quality by giving a 10-year warranty on our vehicles globally. So that, hopefully, can deliver the message that we are serious about quality.
TDB: You seem to be taking a slightly different strategy from the Asian companies that came to the U.S. in the past. You’re not trying to buy market share by selling entry-level products at a steep discount. Rather, it seems you’re offering well-equipped, higher-end products, but at an affordable price.
Thuy: Exactly. (Parent company) Vingroup provides premium quality products to the mass market. That’s exactly the same thing we will do here.
Building EVs in the U.S.
TDB: Before he left the company last month, former CEO Michael Lohscheller told me he was planning to build a U.S. assembly plant. Is that still your plan now that he has left?
Thuy: Yes, we are still going with it. I’m next going with our VP of manufacturing and a few other people to see the sites that we have selected. We are very close. We have three competing sites and we need to decide which one we want to move forward with.
TDB: And what sort of timetable do you have? What sort of capacity would that plant have?
Thuy: We (will try) to replicate what we have in Vietnam. So, we are planning to build a factory that can manufacture about 250,000 vehicles per year, and a Gigafactory to manufacture battery cells and the pack. And there will be another electric bus factory, as well. Today, we manufacture VinFast electric buses for Vietnam and we are developing electric buses for the U.S. and European market, as well.
TDB: That is a pretty hefty number, 250,000. Are you looking for that to produce vehicles for export, as well?
Thuy: We don’t think 250,000 is a lot, starting in 2024, for the North American market. That would be a lot if we were just trying to get (traditional) EV customers. We’re looking to switch consumers from ICE to EVs. When you look at the combined market, there’s a lot (of potential customers).
TDB: Are you also working on autonomous technology?
Thuy: Yes, we are. The vehicles we’re delivering in the U.S. this year I expect will have Level 2+ assisted driving. And we are looking at the next level of autonomous driving that will be delivered in our premium vehicle next year.