Electric car maker feels the power of Switzerland
Anton “Toni” Piëch, co-founder of the Swiss electric car manufacturer Piëch Automotive, explains to SWI swissinfo.ch why he chose Zurich and how he intends to establish himself in a highly competitive market with battery-powered cars for “purists who love technology “.
This content was published on May 11, 2021 – 09:00 AM
Piëch, who says he wants to breathe new life into the Swiss automotive industry, is a descendant of an Austro-German family with a rich automotive history: his great-grandfather was Ferdinand Porsche and his father, Ferdinand Piëch, was CEO from Volkswagen.
swissinfo.ch: Why did you choose Zurich as the base for Piëch Automotive?
Toni Piëch: As a European, I think it is important that Europe continues to play an important role in the world. In the automotive industry, Europe has a very solid industrial base.
Although I am partly Austrian and partly German, I grew up in Lucerne and appreciate the values of long-term reliability that can be found in Swiss watches, for example. These are the values that Piëch Automotive wishes to embody.
Finally, Zurich is a major financial center and increasingly a technology hub, with companies like Google.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland also has many automotive suppliers …
TP: Of course, but it was not a decisive factor, as we could have had good access to Swiss suppliers from another country like Germany, Austria or Italy. In any case, we work with suppliers not only here in Europe but also outside.
swissinfo.ch: With all these foreign suppliers, can you really say that your cars are “Made in Switzerland”?
TP: No, because according to “Swissness” rules, at least 60% of the value must be produced in Switzerland. In the auto industry, this is unrealistic.
Anton Piëch was born in 1974 and comes from an Austrian and German family. He went to school at the Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz, near St Moritz in eastern Switzerland. He then studied Far Eastern Studies at Princeton in the United States.
He spent 12 years in China, first as a correspondent for Swiss radio, then as founder and president of PAE Pictures, a company specializing in the production of feature films, television programs and digital content.
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swissinfo.ch: Some electric car manufacturers, like Porsche, offer a range of models and options; others, like Tesla, are not. Where is Piëch Automotive located?
TP: Our strategy is again different. Our goal is to create objects of passion: classic cars for technology-loving purists.
swissinfo.ch: There are at least 100 start-ups specializing in electric vehicles around the world. Established automakers are also increasingly turning to these vehicles. How do you plan to stand out?
TP: Our industry is indeed very competitive, but we are not worried because our approach is not to sell as many cars as quickly as possible. Our vision is to serve a very specialized niche and continue to generate a respectable profit over the long term.
swissinfo.ch: You highlight the very short recharging time of your batteries. Since you are buying these batteries, how can you prevent your competition from buying them as well?
TP: Our main asset is our modular construction. This approach allows us to add new external components very quickly, such as charging systems, sensors, chips, data management systems, etc. By comparison, established automakers such as the Volkswagen Group take several years to put these new components into service.
In other words, we are not trying to gain exclusive access to particular suppliers; we just want to be the first automaker to incorporate their revolutionary components.
swissinfo.ch: In 2019, at the Geneva International Motor Show, you announced that sales of your first model would start in 2022. Can you confirm this date? And what will the selling price be?
TP: At this point, we would prefer not to specify a date for our first model. It will be a two-seater with a price range of CHF 150,000 ($ 166,000) to CHF 200,000.
swissinfo.ch: Which regions of the world do you plan to focus on?
TP: Basically we want to have equal coverage of North America, Europe and Asia. However, initially we think it is very important to be successful here in Switzerland and Germany. This is really a prerequisite for success in other markets.
Obtaining regulatory approval for a car in many different countries will certainly be a challenge, but we believe we can handle it.
swissinfo.ch: Besides the two-seater, what other models do you plan to put on the market?
TP: Our goal is to launch three sporty models: the two-seater, a four-seater and an SUV. The last two should allow us to move larger volumes. We have high hopes for our SUV in China. Given our modular approach, setting up a range of three models shouldn’t be too difficult.
swissinfo.ch: Are you going to sell directly or through resellers?
TP: We want to keep the structure as light as possible, except when it comes to customer contact. We therefore intend to focus on direct sales.
swissinfo.ch: You have raised around $ 100 million (CHF 90 million), one of the main investors being Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and Palantir. What are the next steps?
TP: For our next investment cycle, we’re aiming for between $ 200 and $ 300 million. We can see different possibilities for this, like a private placement [a non-public offering], traditional stock market listing, or a SPAC [special purpose acquisition company].
To convince potential investors, you have to be solid. For this reason, we have hired experienced managers. I am thinking, for example, of Matthias Müller, former CEO of Porsche and Volkswagen, who has chaired our board of directors since the end of 2020.
swissinfo.ch: How can a former CEO of Porsche and Volkswagen be interested in a start-up?
TP: The senior executives we hired were drawn to our vision and the agility of our organization. Zurich is also a good place to attract executive talent and seasoned managers from the automotive industry, although Munich or Stuttgart can be just as attractive.
swissinfo.ch: You worked in China for 12 years. What struck you the most about the country?
TP: The great ambitions of the Chinese – and the speed with which they can act. In Switzerland, the pace is slower, but the base is more solid.
(Translated from French by Terence MacNamee)