Sanjeev Gupta challenges Elon Musk in race for electric car supremacy
Summary: The Indian-born industrialist busily picking up the pieces of the British steel industry is about to go head-to-head with Elon Musk in the race to put electric cars on the road.....
Sanjeev Gupta is pitching a modern “people’s car” concept akin to the VW Beetle against the flamboyant American’s Tesla range of electric vehicles, from supercars to the fledgling Model 3, and the growing fleet of vehicles being produced by mainstream carmakers.
His is a small car with big ambitions, one that “you can plug into a plug anywhere in the world”, one that can be made from light composite materials commonly used on aircraft and one that will be assembled and adapted at sites worldwide to meet local needs.
The design, he says, will allow owners in remote locations to live “off the grid” by using solar power to charge the car’s battery and then using the car’s battery to power houses at night.
“Our concept of the car is the people’s car,” Mr Gupta said. “We are actually debating what we will call it. We want to sort of go after the Beetle idea.
“It’s going to be a cheap car, relatively speaking. We want to make it an everyday car rather than a luxury car. It’s completely revolutionary. It’s like what the iPhone did to telephones. That’s what the electric car is going to do.”
His plans to build electric cars emerged last month when it was disclosed that he was seeking access to a huge General Motors plant in Australia, which closed in October after operating for 70 years.
The government of South Australia, where the shuttered site is located, said the Australian division of GFG Alliance, the Gupta family’s international business, intended to develop it as a manufacturing base for an electric vehicle.
Mr Gupta may be looking to be an “everyman” car, but its roots are every bit as sporty as Mr Musk’s Tesla.
It is intended to utilise innovative i-Stream technology developed by the venture’s partner Gordon Murray Design, a system that uses lightweight materials and fewer parts to achieve an ultra-low vehicle weight. Mr Murray is best-known as a former chief designer at McLaren and as the man behind the grand prix company’s exclusive — and hugely expensive — Formula One road supercar.
The technology, centred on a steel frame incorporating composite panels to produce a lightweight car, is not untested: it was used five years ago by Yamaha to create small cars aimed at cities.
Mr Gupta said the use of composite materials allowed a car to be manufactured in smaller numbers, at lower cost and in multiple designs. “That’s the beauty of this,” he said. “Because it can be done as a composite car, it can be done in small batches. It doesn’t need big infrastructure, relatively speaking. So you can bespoke it everywhere.”
Mr Gupta, 45, is the founder of Liberty House Group, a conglomerate that owes its roots to a business run by the entrepreneur when he was a student at Cambridge University. Since then it has grown into a giant with turnover of $8.7 billion, more than 10,000 employees and a presence in industries from construction to metals, agriculture to mining.
He has built an empire in British steel in recent years by buying up assets from Scotland to south Wales. He moved his family to Australia three months ago after making heavy investments in the country’s steel and renewable energy industries.
Mr Gupta said that he expected his electric car to cost “much less” than the $129,000 Tesla S that he drives in Sydney. That is not the only contrast with Tesla. The American technology company has been specialising in electric cars since its foundation in 2003, though efforts to produce a mass-market vehicle rather than more premium models are still falling short of Mr Musk’s ambitions.
The 46-year-old South African-born billionaire has his eyes set on several high-technology enterprises, including space travel, solar power and artificial intelligence. Last week Tesla beat analysts’ expectations with its fourth-quarter results after SpaceX, another Musk-owned company, sent a Tesla car into space.
When asked to place a time frame on his car’s appearance, Mr Gupta made clear that securing an existing factory was crucial.
“It depends on whether we can get a head start,” he said. “If we can get a head start where there is already something that we can ride on the back of, it’s much faster.
“If you have to start from a green field, then obviously it takes much longer and is more expensive.”
GM is understood to be insisting that Mr Gupta’s group compete with others interested in its Australian assets.
Mirroring his efforts in Britain, Mr Gupta has already been credited with revitalising Australia’s steel industry via his purchase of South Australia’s Whyalla steel works and his plans to spend about $987 million to increase production and seek new export markets.
He said that Australia, with its enormous reserves of iron ore — much of it exported to China’s steelmakers — had “missed a trick” by not manufacturing more steel.
“All through my life while I have been in the steel business, I never understood why Australia was not a powerhouse for steel,” he said.