Interview with Li Guangming

Imagine your city, that you have known and loved, slowly being consumed by dirt and pollution to the point where blue sky becomes a commodity? Where perhaps one day you might have to pay for clean air? That is Li Guangming’s city, Beijing. Originally from Hunan province Li came to Beijing 15 years ago for the first time, blue skies were taken for granted, traffic was an alien concept, and people could actually move around freely. Nowadays its virtually impossible to get anywhere between 5 – 7 pm, you should consider yourself lucky if you get a glimpse of blue sky during the week, and even more fortunate if you can spot a star! Although the government has made a huge effort this year to clean up the ‘air’ for the Olympics, Beijing is still covered in soot. Beijing’s officials promised the city 200 days of blue sky this year by moving major factories out of the city (presumably just transferring the problem), but for Li this is not enough. “Everything must be electric”, says Li, when we sat down with him in Beijing this past April, “and cities need to become villages again!”

You might have heard of seen his concept cars at this year’s Detroit Motor Show, they were hard to miss. The three yellow bubbly cars that were shown for the first time in the US, ‘A Piece of Cloud’, ‘Detroit Fish’, and ‘Book of Songs’, are a true reflection of Li, a man who is young at heart and playful. When you meet him you can see that mysterious twinkle in his eyes that says ‘I know something you don’t’. That is exactly what his cars are like, a little bit cheeky and a whole lot of fun. You may not appreciate them at first and they may seem quirky and naïve, but they come from the bottom of his heart and best of all they are electric.

Either way, Li has caught the industry’s attention and is now faced with demand and interest from dealers US and UK. Li has the difficult yet noble task of building up his company and his cars from ground zero in a sustainable manner. He realizes that he has the unique opportunity to create the first totally sustainable and environmentally friendly automotive factory and production facilities in China. Li is a man on a mission and this is how he got started and why to him the sky is really the limit:

GCD: How did you become a car designer?

Li: I have no formal education in art or transportation design yet 10 years ago I felt that one day I would design cars. At that time I believed there were no goo car designers in China so in 2003 I founded my design studio in Beijing. Soon after we unveiled 3 show cars at the 2004 Beijing Auto Show. Inspired by very famous traditional Chinese folk poem book, The Book of Feng Ya Song (The Book of Songs) we named each of our cars Feng (Wind), Ya (Elegance), and Song (Praise). The show was a hit! I was able to be one of the first to protect my designs and soon became an official National Treasure.

GCD: When did you become electric?

Li: In 2005 we showed a 2 seater car, Xiao-Ya (Small Elegance) at the Beijing Science and Technology fair and became the first to show a totally integrated electric car in China as reported by Reuters. Then in 2006 we made a show car called The Book of Songs, a special European Edition which we presented at the Paris Auto Show. Again, it was a 2 seater urban mover for which we received a lot of positive feedback, dare I say someone even called it genius!

GCD: You seem to have done very well at this year’s Detroit Motor Show, have you had any offers?

Li: Yes! At the Detroit Motor Show we showed 3 cars.

GCD: Always yellow?

Li: Yes! Yellow is a very strong colour that attracts the eye. One car was Piece of Cloud, the other Detroit Fish, and the third was Book of Songs from 2006. As you can see Piece of Cloud and Detroit Fish have no doors because my intention was for them to serve as tourism vehicles in warm weather climates like Florida or California. As a matter of fact one of our clients, Alvin, bought a Detroit Fish and he will receive it this summer. A basic model costs around $6,000 US, it can’t go over 45 km/hr but on one plug-in charge the car can travel around 120 km powered by its Lithium-Ion battery.

GCD: Have you received any big orders?

Li: Yes, just this week we have met with clients from Ireland who are third generation dealers and own 200 dealers in Ireland and the UK. They have ordered two models, the Xiao-Ya and the Book of Songs with doors; they should be on the roads in 2009. We will make a few initial vehicles in fiberglass for testing the market but then we hope to quickly go plastic so we can make the car more recyclable and green. It’s a very exciting time for us and look forward to growing our now 50 strong staff and modest 8,000 sqm factory into much more while remaining as sustainable as we can within our means.

GCD: Will you ever produce a non-electric car?

Li: No. There is no other technology that is 100% emissions free and this is my dream, we will always make electric cars. We have the technology so why not use it? We want to take advantage of our capacity in China to produce cars at a low cost but deliver a car with high quality. We also have the technical know-how to convert traditionally fuelled cars and transit buses to be electrically run, it’s a matter of commitment, investment, and time.

GCD: Why did you want to make electric cars?

Li: The Earth has come to a point where she cannot take the situation anymore and cannot burden her further. This is a big weight on my shoulders. Human beings are too greedy and too ready to waste more and ask too much from the earth. We need to make a new way of living, we have to maintain and keep a balance with the earth. We don’t need to drive so fast, we need to have a quiet mind and a quiet heart to be at peace with the earth.

Our economies have taken a lot from earth, and it exploits a lot of nature…I call it our grey economy. There is no sunshine in this equation, as there is no sunshine in this city. Nature can give power to people if only we give it back to her, and people are crazy not to take care of her!

GCD: The forms of your cars are very playful, almost cartoon-like, what inspires you?

Li: Oh, nature! I design from the bottom of my heart, I know it doesn’t sound so mature but I can relate to people aged 18 – 80, and I do this for them!!!

We left Li with the knowledge that he will fight for his dream even though its an uphill battle for sure. If anyone is looking to invest in electric vehicles in China this is the man to talk to!