Veteran auto industry executive Freeman Shen MS ’94 discussed the state of China’s car industry and its challenges with a few hundred UCLA students this month as part of the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series.
Shen is the founder, chairman and CEO of WM Motor, an emerging electric vehicle company in China. The talk was moderated by Jayathi Murthy, the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Dean of UCLA Engineering.
Shen said that cars in China are not simply vehicles to get from point A to point B; they’re also personal space just like a home is.
“People want to own their own car, especially SUVs,” Shen said. “A car is moving space. It gives them some private time.”
WM Motor is looking to become a leader in the nascent electric vehicle (EV) market in China. EV sales remain a small part of the country’s car market as there is not yet a good quality car at an affordable price, Shen said. WM Motor’s first production vehicle will be an SUV at a price point aimed at the country’s growing middle class.
“We are trying to solve middle class family needs,” he said. “We will have good quality at a medium price.”
Shen started WM Motor after successful stints as an executive with car manufacturers and car technology companies, including Geely Holding Group in China. During his tenure with Geely, Shen oversaw the company’s acquisition of Volvo Car Group from Ford Motor Company.
Shen has also been the Vice President of Fiat Group China, and CEO of Fiat Powertrain Technologies China.
As the conversation shifted toward the future, Shen discussed the prospects for EVs and autonomous cars.
“Autonomous vehicles will have to be EV,” he said. “It’s all essentially robotics. They need to run on batteries, not an engine. There are huge career opportunities in this area.”
Shen came to UCLA Samueli for a master’s degree in civil engineering, specializing in structural mechanics.
Shen originally planned to follow his father’s footsteps and become an architect. His colorblindness however held him back in that field, and he moved to engineering (his mother was a civil engineer), eventually finding his niche in the car industry.
“A car is actually much more challenging than a building – it moves,” he said.
Shen also offered insight into the opening up of China’s economy, starting in the 1980s.
“This was the right place at the right time of history,” he said of new business ventures. “People became successful because the timing was right. It was very easy to launch a new business 10 years ago. Now it’s much more competitive.”