VinFast: the name says a lot about Vietnam’s first car company. Since its founding six years ago, the company has operated at a speed few other automakers could keep pace with. Within barely two years, it had its first vehicle in production.
But when it comes to the company’s shift to all-electric vehicles, is haste necessarily a good thing? Earlier this month, VinFast gave journalists a chance to test drive its first EV, the VF 8, during an event in San Diego. The reception was clearly not what the automaker expected. While some in the media described the electric SUV as “promising” but “flawed,” others were far less kind.
TheDetroitBureau.com initially spoke with VinFast’s North American CEO Van Anh Nguyen about the company’s plans and aspirations ahead of the drive, then followed up by e-mail, seeking her response to the poor reviews the VF 8 received. We’ll begin with the chief executive’s e-mailed reaction to those reviews, then follow with the results of our in-person interview, which has been edited for clarity.
TheDetroitBureau: The reviews of the VF 8 has been harsh. How do you feel about the hits it’s taken? What has the company learned and how will it respond?
Nguyen (responding by e-mail): We have received quite a few reviews for the VF 8 recently and most of them are balanced, noting that the vehicle has a stylish exterior, modern interior, solid performance and a wide range of advanced technology features. In addition to that, we gathered feedback on potential improvements from some of the journalists in attendance at the drive program. We have acknowledged them and will work on their improvements as VinFast is constantly striving to improve itself to bring customers quality products and outstanding services.”
TDB: As you look at how things have gone so far, where are you in terms of your original plans? There are always surprises that come along.
Nguyen: We are doing exactly what we planned to do when the company was established. We wanted to be a global company. We wanted green vehicles but started with (gas models) because the infrastructure wasn’t there. We had to wait for a more mature timing. We know this is the right time (for electric vehicles).
TDB: You’ve been running behind schedule. You originally planned to begin delivering the VF 8 late last year but have only started in the last month. Why?
Nguyen: We actually exported the vehicles from Vietnam last year. But, unfortunately, the ship arrived during the holidays. So that delayed deliveries a bit. And then we had to wait for EPA certification. Then there was the update to our vehicles to the latest software. So, yes, there was a little delay. We are catching up and doing everything we can so our customers can receive and drive the vehicles ASAP.
Moving quickly in the U.S.
TDB: How many advance orders have you received?
Nguyen: I don’t have the exact numbers for the VF 8 (and the still to launch) VF 9 but it’s 12,000 reservations for both in the United States. And 5,000 in Canada. We are working with our customers to convert those into orders so they can receive their vehicles.
TDB: You have announced plans to have two more models, the smaller VF 6 and VF 7 SUVs, in the U.S. by the end of this year. When will you start taking orders for them?
Nguyen: We will start taking reservations for those vehicles shortly.
TDB: Do you plan to actually deliver some of those two models this year, as well, or just take reservations?
Nguyen: We need to work on that, and we’ll inform our customers later.
TDB: As you move forward, with at least four models in the U.S. market, which do you expect to be your real volume product?
Nguyen: I do not know, yet, because we haven’t launched the VF 6 and VF 7. But I think American customers will love our bigger cars, the VF 9 and VF 8. But there will be customers who like smaller cars. They do not drive them a lot, especially in inner cities in traffic is heavy. That’s why we like to offer different options.
Making a mark
TDB: How much of a challenge will it be to get American buyers aware of a new car company from Vietnam?
Nguyen: We are a new company. We have a totally new brand. So we need to build brand awareness. And we need to earn the trust from customers. We need to deliver a quality product and offer good customer service. We are confident of our products as well as our 10-year warranties.
TDB: You’re setting up a sales and service network in California. But you’ve not announced plans to go into any other state yet. Why not?
Nguyen: It is partly due to the policy of the state. California has a strong commitment to EVs. Customers are more open to EVs and you see a lot of charging stations everywhere in California.
TDB: How soon do you expect to announce plans to open in other states?
Nguyen: From next year, for sure. We have a lot of reservations from customers in other states. So, we are working on that right now.
TDB: It seems like the industry was taken by surprise by the IRA (the Inflation Reduction Act which set strict new limits on which vehicles — and buyers — could qualify for EV incentives). Has that changed your plans and strategies?
Planning for the future
Nguyen: We have a long-term plan. We are ready to invest in the U.S. market, starting in California. We also decided to invest in a manufacturing facility in North Carolina before the Inflation Reduction Act. We’ll live with that and execute our plan.
TDB: The manufacturing plant really will work well (because it could allow VinFast to offer federal sales incentives again). When do you plan to begin construction?
Nguyen: Within this year. We’ve had to win permits. We now have to select the construction company and technology partners. We are already doing site preparation work. As soon as we (finish) all those things we will start construction.
TDB: And when will it begin production?
TDB: There have been rumors that you might be open to talking with the United Auto Workers Union about representing the plant. Is there any truth to that?
Nguyen: I’m not going to make any comment on the rumors. When we have a plan we will share that transparently with the media.
TDB: To wrap up, let me ask you what the biggest surprise has been setting up operations in North America? There are always surprises.
Nguyen: Regulations. Many (have proved tougher than expected) and they are also different from state to state. I know the U.S. is a large country. But it can even be different from city to city. That even affects how we build our stores. We open our store in one city but the rules are different in another city. Coming from a different country that is something I have had to learn a lot about. I’m not complaining. It’s just something we have to learn and adjust to.