NZ electric vehicle maker inks $US20m Chinese production deal

HMI chief executive Dean Zabrieszach confirmed the airport will be Ohmio's first commercial customer.

Auckland company HMI Technologies has signed a $US20 million, 50:50 joint venture with a local government agency in Heshan that will see HMI move all of its manufacturing, and some R&D, to a new plant in the Chinese city.

The deal will see a plant in Heshan produce HMI's driverless people-mover, the Ohmio (pictured). The Heshan plant will also carry out some work on the artificial intelligence smarts that help power HMI's autonomous shuttles.

Christchurch International Airport has been trialling a prototype Ohmio.

Today, HMI chief executive Dean Zabrieszach confirmed the airport will be Ohmio's first commercial customer. It will take delivery of two Ohmios in about six weeks. NBR was previously told each Ohmio would cost around $400,000. Mr Zabrieszach wouldn't comment on a specific sale price today but says the industry-standard range is $350,000-400,000.

HMI used local contractors including Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders and Llama Engineering to create Ohmio prototypes.

But Mr Zabriezach says HMI wants to build between 1000 and 2000 of its self-driving electric buses a year, within five years.

That requires manufacturing scale and proximity to raw materials, the chief executive says. The Chinese deal delivers that, though Mr Zabriezach adds that HMI is also looking at manufacturing possibilities in the US and Europe, and may even do some small-scale assembly in New Zealand in future.

Mr Zabriezach says the Chinese production deal announced today was done with the Heshan Industrial City Management Committee. It centres wholly on the new production facility; Heshan has not taken a stake in HMI, of which Ohmio is a 100%-owned subsidiary. Companies Office records show chairman Mohammed Hikmet continues to own all HMI and Ohmio shares (earlier this year, in a move that could have seen production or at least some production stay in NZ, Ohmio tried to raise $6 million).

The Ohmio Lift, the self-driving electric people mover (circa $400,000) that HMI has sold to Christchurch International Airport. 

Beyond its Christchurch Airport deal, HMI has a memorandum of understanding with a Korean company, Southwest Coast Enterprise City Development (or SolaSeaDo) for 150 half-size Ohmios – although whether it translates to sales depends on SolaSeaDo securing a contract for a large scale "smart city" development.

Ohmio has a number of direct competitors, including French company Navya.

Mr Zabriezach says his company's point of difference is that it focuses on creating a technology platform. He means both in the software sense – he likens Ohmio to a smartphone that can take any software app – and in a more literal manufacturing sense. The Ohmio has a modular chassis that can be assembled into a people mover, or configured to carry freight. The chief executive even sees potential for Ohmios to act as autonomous street sweepers.

You saw the signs
If you've never heard of HMI, you've probably seen its product. The 200-person outfit has a near-monopoly on electronic signs. If you've seen a roadside display telling you your speed, or to slow down because there's a school coming up, it's probably made by HMI.

Its electronic signs have always been made in China, in Jiangmen City, about 45 to 60 minutes from Heshan (both cities are in Guangdong, the manufacturing region north of Hong Kong).

The new production deal will see its electronic sign manufacture move to Heshan as well as its new Ohmio business.

While R&D work will be done at the new Heshan plant, Mr Zabriezach says they will complement research and development done by 30 Ohmio-focused staff at HMI's office in Auckland, nine of whom have PhDs.

This morning, the HMI boss thanked NZTE, MFAT and Auckland Council agency ATEED for helping to draw the Chinese deal together.

HMI also landed  three years of Callaghan Innovation matching R&D funding worth up to $5m a year from April 1, 2015 to March 31 this year.

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