An unusually scripted Elon Musk issued conciliatory and complimentary comments to Chinese automakers during a pre-recorded appearance at China’s World New Energy Vehicle Congress, striking a pose that is worlds away from his commentary style in the United States.
“I have a great deal of respect for the many Chinese automakers for driving these [EV and AV] technologies,” he said, the reflection of a ring light just visible in the window over his left shoulder. The entire tableau was enough to make one suspect that there was a crisis communications expert just out of frame, urging him to continue with his prepared remarks.
Then again, perhaps Musk doesn't need any external coaxing; China is one of the most lucrative markets for electric vehicles in the entire world, accounting for around one-fifth -- or $6.66 billion -- of Tesla’s overall sales last year, according to regulatory filings.
While the United States continues to be one of Tesla’s largest markets, the company has aggressively pursued expansion in China, including opening Gigafactory Shanghai in 2019 to manufacture the Model 3 and Model Y. Tesla faces competition from Chinese automakers, including electric car startup Xpeng and the search giant company Baidu.
“My frank observation is that Chinese automobile companies are the most competitive in the world, especially because some are very good at software, and it is software that will most shape the future of the automobile industry, from design to manufacturing and especially autonomous driving," Musk said in the message.
The company’s entrance into the EV market of the world’s most populous nation was bumpy at first, but Tesla managed to turn it around. Last year, the Tesla Model 3 was the best-selling EV in China. Tesla has also received unprecedented autonomy in the region, especially as it is the only non-Chinese automaker allowed to wholly own its local subsidiary. It’s a fact that Musk has noted in past public appearances.
“I think something that’s really quite noteworthy here is, Tesla’s the only foreign manufacturer to have a hundred percent owned factory in China,” Musk said during the company’s Battery Day event last year. “This is often not well understood or not appreciated, but to have the only hundred percent owned foreign factory in China is a really big deal, and it’s paying huge dividends.”
But it hasn’t all been roses: The company has faced a flurry of negative media from both consumers and regulators this year, beginning in February when Chinese government officials summoned company executives for a meeting over vehicle safety concerns. (To which Tesla said, “We sincerely accepted the guidance of government departments and deeply reflected on shortcomings in our business operations.”)
Then, in April, a woman who said she was a Tesla owner protested the company at the Shanghai auto show in April. Bloomberg reported a few months later that Tesla was attempting to build relationships with Chinese social media influencers and auto-industry publications to combat all the bad PR.
A female Tesla owner climbed on top of a car’s roof at the Tesla booth to protest her car’s brake malfunction at the Shanghai auto show Monday. The booth beefed up its security after the incident. pic.twitter.com/ct7RmF1agM
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) April 19, 2021
In his pre-recorded remarks, Musk also responded to a question on self-driving vehicles and data security, calling it “not only the responsibility of a single company but also the cornerstone of the whole industry development.” This issue is especially sensitive after news emerged that the Chinese military banned drivers from parking their Tesla’s at its facilities. Last month, China released new regulations aimed at bolstering data security in connected automobiles, Tech Wire Asia reported. Tesla and other automakers, including Ford and BMW, moved to establish local data storage centers in China.
“Tesla will work with national authorities in all countries to ensure data security of intelligent and connected vehicles,” he added.