A foreign automaker that’s not well known in America comes to a major auto show and announces plans to sell cars in the States, showing off a couple of models and promising on-sale dates that seem both ambitious and yet not unreasonable.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
The curiosity of this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show is VinFast, a Vietnamese automaker that’s part of a larger conglomerate called Vingroup. The conglomerate has its hands in all kinds of industries, from tech to real estate to retail to healthcare.
VinFast currently sells its vehicles in Vietnam, as you’d expect, but it’s been dipping its toes into various foreign markets over the past year or two. It announced plans to get cars into customers’ driveways by the end of 2022.
All those cars, at least in America, will be EVs. While VinFast does produce some internal-combustion engine vehicles in its home market, the cars slated for the U.S. are EVs. The two cars are actually SUVs — one dubbed the VF e35 and the other the VF e36.
Michael Lohscheller, CEO of VinFast Global, said in a release: “We are deeply motivated to inspire our customers to be bold and join the revolution to EVs to accelerate solutions that will address this crisis. VinFast believes that the ‘Future of Mobility’ will be one of smart electric cars that are highly personalized and integrated with technologies that benefit life and our environment. These vehicles will do so while meeting safety standards and delivering superior and comfortable driving experiences.”
Features available on the two vehicles include lane assist, collision warning, driver monitoring, automated parking, and a system that will allow drivers to summon the vehicle.
Orders will start during the first half of 2022.
I chatted with a VinFast spokesman (who asked to remain unnamed) on the floor at the L.A. show and pressed him on the company’s plans. It’s easy to say that you will build cars for America, but much harder to execute the plan. Even for a company that has been building and selling cars in other markets.
For example, one needs a dealer network. VinFast says that this won’t be an issue — the company plans to allow customers to do most of their shopping online, just like Tesla does (legacy automakers also have online buying programs). That sounds great, but shoppers still want to test-drive cars, and see them up close, and they also need a place to service them.
To that end, the company plans to build 60 centers that will offer retail, service, or both. The first will be built in California. The spokesman told me that VinFast has not, to his knowledge, earned pushback from dealers because of its desire to push an online-heavy buying system.
He also said that the company’s internal research suggested that consumers are satisfied with online-buying processes as opposed to visiting dealerships.
I asked if VinFast was prepared to deal with regulatory challenges that are specific to the American market, and the spokesman said the company was confident it was but he wasn’t willing to get into specific details. He did say that the company is targeting 5-star ratings in crash testing.
We’re a bit more skeptical. It’s relatively easy, if not cheap, for the company to put together a press conference and display at the show, and to host media for a party after the show’s first press day (full disclosure: I stopped by this party briefly). It’s another for VinFast to break into an already crowded American market, get the attention of consumers who have never heard of the company (and some who may be skeptical of cars built in Vietnam), show that the cars can compete with existing models, and navigate a complex regulatory environment.
Indeed, of the two cars on the show floor, one had a dummy interior that appeared to be made of foam.
I’m not suggesting VinFast will or won’t succeed in the States. But the odds are stacked against it. I look forward to seeing where the brand stands in the American market in November 2022.
[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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