Li Auto reported losses of RMB 792 million ($121 million) in its first annual result as a public company, significantly reducing losses from a year earlier, but has drawn criticism for underinvesting in future innovation. Its shares declined 9.8% on Thursday.
Benefiting from rising electric-vehicle demand in China, Li Auto earned nearly RMB 9.5 billion in 2020. Its first model, the Li One, was China’s best-selling electric SUV during the year, according to figures from China Passenger Car Association. However, its delivery guidance of 11,500 vehicles in the first quarter of this year was almost 30% lower than the preceding quarter, which it attributed to the Spring Festival holiday and an uptick of Covid-19 cases in parts of the country.
Cost controls gone too far
The company narrowed its loss per share of $0.28, or net loss attributable to shareholders of $121.4 million, a 76% decrease from the previous year. This was partly aided by net income of $16.5 million in the fourth quarter from “short-term investment income” according to CFO Li Tie during the call with analysts. The EV maker also benefited from streamlining its sales operations, spending RMB 1.1 billion on selling, general, and administrative costs for the full year, 40% of what NIO spent on the same expense in the first three quarters of the year.
However, Li Auto’s investment into research and development was substantially less than its peers, raising concern among investors. Company executives had promised investors during an online briefing held a few weeks ago that it will accelerate the launch of new models to ease concern about its transition from EREV to all-electrics, according to a report released by investment bank China International Capital Corporation (CICC) last week.
In a conference call with analysts on Thursday, CEO Li Xiang said it has been on track to expand its range of products as part of a strategic move to prioritize business growth over cost control. The company promised to launch at least one new model every year starting 2022, including its first all-electric model scheduled for 2023.
The goal is to occupy a larger share of the market from mainstream to premium for an annual sales target of “several hundreds of thousands of vehicles” by the end of 2024, Li said (our translation). It also expects to build out a retail network of at least 1,000 stores by that time. The company had 52 stores in 41 Chinese cities as of December; NIO and Xpeng Motors had promised a respective 200 and 150 shops by year end.
The Beijing-based EV maker currently has only one model for sale and mainly focuses on extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs), a technology which features a small internal combustion engine dedicated to recharging the vehicle battery, designed to resolve range anxiety. However, recent policy changes in China is pressuring the company to accelerate its transition to all-electric.
Following Beijing, the Shanghai municipal government early this month unveiled a new policy for new energy vehicles, which excludes new purchases of plug-in hybrid vehicles, including EREVs, from free vehicle registration starting in 2023. Company president Kevin Shen on Thursday reassured investors, saying he expects EREV sales will continue to be strong until then. The company confirmed that it will release its second EREV model, a full-sized SUV with advanced driver assistance capabilities, in 2022.
Li Auto vehicles combine popular features and an affordable price tag, making it a more attractive choice than most internal combustion and electric vehicles in China over the past year. However, the company lags significantly rivals where self-driving technology is concerned— NIO and Xpeng Motor have emerged as major rivals to Tesla. The Li One crossover does not offer intermediate self-driving capabilities, such as navigation from on-ramp to off-ramp on Chinese highways, similar to Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot and those NIO and Xpeng have both introduced in their vehicles.
CFO Li said the company will increase its R&D investment to at least $464 million this year and it will exceed $1 billion by end-2024, with half of the budget to be used in vehicle autonomy. CTO Wang Kai said that the size of its self-driving team will double to around 600 engineers by the end of this year as it opens its new R&D center in Shanghai with the end goal of 2,000 total employees.
Bigger rivals, including Tesla and a number of Chinese tech giants, pose a real and urgent threat. Wang said 2021 will be “the year of preparation” for the release of Li Auto’s new vehicle architecture next year, powered by Nvidia’s most advanced auto processor, Orin. “Similar features offered by our rivals, along with some brand new features, will also provided to customers for sure,” Wang said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Li Auto plans to double the size of its R&D team to 600 engineers this year, not that of the self-driving team.