Electric-Vehicle Startup XPeng Bets On Tech That Tesla Rejects
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Electric-Vehicle Startup XPeng Bets On Tech That Tesla Rejects

One of three U.S.-listed Chinese EV makers, it is relying on innovation to overtake its rivals.

By Trefor Moss
Fri, Apr 16, 2021 11:45amGrey Clock 4 min

GUANGZHOU—Once a Tesla Inc. fan who owned four of its vehicles, He Xiaopeng, co-founder of Chinese electric-vehicle startup XPeng Inc., now wants to overtake the car company that originally inspired him.

While acknowledging Tesla as an inspiration, Mr. He said XPeng—one of three Chinese EV companies listed in the U.S.—can win using innovation, an area in which Chinese technology companies have become increasingly formidable.

“We have a saying in China,” Mr. He said in an interview Wednesday at XPeng’s headquarters in the southern city of Guangzhou. “To defeat someone, you need to do something different.”

XPeng, alongside its U.S.-listed peers Li Auto Inc. and Nio Inc., has taken investors on a wild ride over the past eight months.

The company’s August listing on the New York Stock Exchange valued it at US$8 billion. By November its value had jumped to nearly $58 billion. Now it is back down to about US$27 billion. In March, the Shanghai-based research firm Hurun Report said Mr. He was worth US$11 billion.

XPeng unveiled its third production vehicle, the P5 sedan, in Guangzhou on Wednesday. Deliveries of the P5, which is said to have approx. 600km driving range, are due to start this year. The company didn’t announce the car’s price, though it will be lower than the in-production P7 sedan, which starts at roughly $60,000 and is a direct competitor of the made-in-China Tesla Model 3, which costs the equivalent of about $66,900.

XPeng began low-volume exports to Europe in December and plans to enter the U.S. market in the future.

Considered by some analysts as the most tech-centric of China’s EV players, Xpeng deploys a voice-operated user interface in its cars, and an autonomous-driving system for use on stretches of highway with 5G internet coverage.

It recently tested the software by sending a fleet of its cars on a 3540km trip from Guangzhou to Beijing, and logging 0.71 human-operator interventions per 100 km—a new benchmark for self-driving cars, the company claimed. On the roughly 320km Shanghai to Nanjing leg attended by the Journal, the car’s human operator intervened once, swerving when the car failed to notice a bus changing lanes ahead.

XPeng claims its autonomous-driving systems, which have previously used radar and cameras, will be significantly enhanced by the addition of lidar, which uses lasers to scan the vehicle’s surroundings—and which Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has dismissed as a waste of money. Xpeng says the new P5 is the first Chinese EV that comes with lidar as standard.

XPeng sold 13,340 vehicles in the first quarter of 2021 and likely needs to sell as many cars every month to break even, said Tu Le, founder of Sino Auto Insights, a consulting firm. Mr. He said in the interview that he was focused on building revenue and growing XPeng’s reputation, rather than on profit.

Tesla sold 69,280 vehicles in China in the January-to-March period, according to the China Passenger Car Association, while Nio sold 20,060 cars.

XPeng is in a strong position as a car company whose main asset is its software, Mr. Le said. “The post-1990s generation in China are all digital natives, and they like Chinese brands,” he said. “What XPeng is doing plays very well with that young Chinese consumer.”

At a moment of rising nationalism in China, homegrown brands have generally been gaining ground on Western ones among local consumers, from clothing to cars.

Mr. He this month announced plans for a third XPeng plant in Wuhan; its second plant, in Guangzhou, is still being built. The three plants will give the company an expected production capacity of 300,000 cars a year.

XPeng last year unveiled a prototype flying car that Mr. He said was far from being a gimmick and potentially key to the company’s future. The company’s growing fleet of EVs is just a starting point for a company with ambitions to define “the future commute,” he said.

Originally a computer programmer, the 43-year-old Mr. He, who comes from the central city of Huangshi, founded UCWeb Inc., a mobile-browser developer, in 2004. He sold the company to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. a decade later in what was then China’s biggest internet merger, and worked as a senior Alibaba executive until 2017 before leaving to run XPeng, which he had co-founded as an investor in 2014.

The birth of his son in early 2017 jolted Mr. He into starting something new, he said. He settled on EVs despite having no automotive background and, by his own admission, regarding the overheated EV sector as “a crazy business.”

“I wanted my son to think that he had a cool dad,” he said.

Unable to persuade Alibaba to let him develop an EV in-house, Mr. He joined XPeng as full-time chief executive and brought the e-commerce giant on board as an investor. Alibaba owns 12.5% of the company, while Mr. He holds 22.7%. Alibaba didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. He said he only fully realized the difficulty of teaming software engineers with car mechanics when the company produced its first working prototype in late 2017.

The XPeng team was moved to tears when the vehicle rolled out: Engineers wept with joy because the machine worked, while the software developers were heartbroken because to them the unpainted and incomplete test-model “looked like trash,” Mr. He said.

The experience taught Mr. He and his software colleagues that developing a competitive car would be an arduous, years-long process.

Mr. He said his priority was to build XPeng into a global company rather than to outflank Tesla or other competitors, but there is open enmity between Mr. He and the company that once inspired him.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against a former employee who had quit Tesla to join XPeng, alleging that he had downloaded its Autopilot source code with a view to handing it over to his new employer. XPeng was never a party to the legal case and said it is “confident we have engaged in no wrongdoing.”

In November, Mr. Musk trashed XPeng’s autonomous-driving system, saying on Twitter that “they have an old version of our software” and alleging that intellectual-property theft “was just an XPeng problem. Other companies in China have not done this.”

Mr. He fired back on Weibo. “It seems XPeng’s next-generation autonomous driving architecture…has made someone in the West feel very upset,” he said.

“Elon Musk is an amazing person and a great entrepreneur, despite some flaws,” Mr. He said in the Wednesday interview. Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 15, 2021.



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Is ‘Rizz’ the Secret to Getting Ahead at Work?

Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”

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