Electric-car maker Tesla Inc. has reached an agreement to set up its own manufacturing facility in Shanghai, according to people briefed on the plan, a move that could help the company gain traction in China’s fast-growing EV market.
The deal with Shanghai’s government will allow the Silicon Valley auto maker to build a wholly owned factory in the city’s free-trade zone, these people said. This arrangement, the first of its kind for a foreign auto maker, could enable Tesla to slash production costs, but it would still likely incur China’s 25% import tariff.
Tesla is currently working with the Shanghai government about details of the deal’s announcement, such as timing, one of these people said. The effort comes as President Donald Trump, who has been critical of China’s trade policies, prepares to visit Beijing early next month.
A Tesla spokesman didn’t have a comment beyond reiterating the company’s previous statement in June that it planned to “clearly define” production plans in China by year’s end. The Shanghai government didn’t reply to a request for comment.
China’s electric-vehicle market—already the world’s largest—is primed for growth. The Chinese government is targeting seven million EV sales a year by 2025, up from 351,000 last year, and in September it ordered all auto makers already operating in China to start producing EVs by 2019. Officials have also said they are working on a plan to ban gasoline cars.
China had previously circulated a proposal that would allow electric-car makers into the country without local partners if they were to locate in the so-called free-trade zones. The government set up the country’s first such zone in Shanghai in 2013, and has since approved 10 more around the country.
Until now, foreign auto makers have built cars in China through joint ventures with local manufacturers. That allows them to avoid the 25% tariff on autos, but also forces them to split profits, and potentially share technology, with the local partner—something that has tripped up Tesla’s previous efforts to expand there.
Under current rules, the cars Tesla builds in the free-trade zone would still count as imports and incur the tariff. Auto analysts in Shanghai doubt the Chinese government has any incentive to give Tesla special treatment.
“Government regulators examine every deal and try not to set a precedent,” said Bill Russo, chief executive of Automobility, a Shanghai-based consultancy, and a former Chrysler executive. “Whatever deal Tesla gets, others will want it too.”