When Full Autonomy Hits, Your Free Time Will Be Big Business

A Chinese media billionaire wants to own the autonomous car ecosystem, because you have to do something while you’re whisked from A to B.

LeEco Autonomy
Getty Images GLENN CHAPMAN / Staff

When Jia Yueting sprinted across the catwalk to close out LeEco’s expansive U.S. launch event this week, the CEO didn’t comport with most American’s view of a poker-faced Chinese executive. YT (as he prefers to be called) is the antithesis of his staid corporate peers, always in jeans and a t-shirt, a uniform that fits in well in San Francisco where it’s the de facto uniform of people with Big Ideas.

Unfortunately, as YT explained, the real reason for his impromptu jog was because his company’s second all-electric, fully-autonomous concept car was involved in a crash while being freighted up from Southern California. It was slated to drive him onto stage, and since that couldn’t happen, the other model was apparently flown in from London where Michael Bay was using it as a prop (I swear this is true) inTransformers Five.

(For those who don't know LeEco—formerly LeTV—it's been described as the Netflix of China, licensing content and building out the infrastructure to pipe into homes. Founded by Yueting in 2004, it was the first company of its kind to IPO on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, solidifying its founder's fortune and enabling him to eventually purchase TV-maker Vizio, as well as make dozens of strategic investments in companies that interest its billionaire CEO.)

The launch wasn't what YT had envisioned (he went on about this fact for some time), but given the scale of what his company just announced, it shouldn’t have mattered. LeEco made it’s first major push into the U.S. market with the introduction of several TVs, two phones, a VR headset, an online marketplace, and content deals covering everything from cartoons to Vice. Oh, and a carbon fiber bike that runs Android.

Maybe adding an autonomous concept car to the mix was a bit much? Not according to the CEO.

The LeSEE is YT’s baby, his vision of the future, where all LeEco’s services—streaming, e-commerce, cloud computing—are beamed into LeEco devices—phones, televisions, possibly cars—to serve up LeEco licensed content, like the movies it produces or the sports events it streams. It’s the most ambitious physical manifestation of the company’s eventual goal to be all things to all people by creating a thriving ecosystem of content and services. And in 2016, there’s no splashier way to make an entrance than with a self-driving car.

But it’s not the company or its founder’s first vehicle. Depending on who’s counting, it could be his third, and soon to be fourth concept car.

The 43-year-old executive is one of the investors bankrolling Faraday Future, the LA-based startup that's been hoovering up talent over the past few years and showed its first concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January.

That same year, just across the show floor, YT’s LeEco unveiled its own concept to celebrate its partnership with Aston Martin, where the Chinese company showed its first foray into infotainment with an electrified Rapide (LeEco supposedly had a hand in the powertrain).

If two vehicle ventures weren’t enough, since then, YT has reportedly taken a stake in another EV startup in the Bay Area, Atevia, after its original Chinese investors backed out. Just yesterday, Atevia changed its name to Lucid Motors and announced the arrival of its own concept vehicle next month.

And at this week’s LeEco event, YT had some of the Faraday Future brass on hand, including Marco Mattiacci, the global chief of brand and commercial officer, when he announced (possibly without Faraday's go-ahead) that their company’s first production vehicle would debut at the upcoming CES next year.

YT clearly wants to be in the mobility business, and if you squint hard enough, you can understand why. He amassed his $4.5 billion fortune by licensing content and building the infrastructure to deliver it. And the sooner self-driving cars come to market, the sooner YT and Co. can beam the latest Matt Damon flick (co-produced by LeEco) into your car, for a nominal price, on the ride home.

For all this to work, LeEco doesn’t just have to establish itself as a viable consumer electronics player in the U.S., it also has to pry people away from the ecosystems they already enjoy, be it Apple or Amazon or Google.

Those companies have their own tightly controlled platforms that hundreds of millions of people have already bought into, be it through hardware or software or services. When you purchase a new Apple product, you’re investing into a larger ecosystem that offers a vast array of content and services, from iTunes to iMessage. Google does the same with its suite of movie, music, subscription, and data services, but it doesn’t just provide data, it “organizes the world’s knowledge ” (including yours). Facebook handles social. Amazon handles commerce. Uber, eventually, handles logistics and transportation.

To hear YT tell it, LeEco wants to handle it all.

Going beyond its core competency–data and streaming–is the next logical step in YT’s grand plan. But the companies LeEco is targeting have all had their own disastrous expansions into unfamiliar territory. Remember Apple’s Ping, the music-focused social network and content recommendation engine? Google’s litany of social networking attempts? The Facebook and Amazon phones?

The ideas may have been sound, but they weren’t born out of a larger need or greater good. Instead, it was just the relentless push to expand the ecosystem, often at the expense of what these companies do best.

LeEco has yet to sell a single branded product in the U.S., but YT is already betting on a mass of consumer acceptance, millions of subscriptions, and even more content deals “coming soon.” LeEco bought a stake in Vizio, is making its own TVs, and it’s already rolled out the third iteration of its Android-powered smartphone. All the while, its CEO is attempting to be a part at least two adolescent automakers—and by extension, three different autonomous/ride-sharing companies.

All YT needs now is a rocket company and he’ll fit right in.