Another Chinese EV startup, and with a very silly name, but one with some serious engineering talent behind it.
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There is no shortage of Chinese EV startups to keep us amused with unlikely concepts and far-off products.

Your first instinct on seeing pictures of the Human Horizons HiPhi 1 is probably to regard it as one of the ones less likely to make production, and fair enough; this is a vast electric SUV with gullwing flaps in the roof above its rear doors. (Sound familiar, though?)

Yet the company behind it promises that pilot production will begin next year and that the customers in the People’s Republic will be getting cars in 2021. They have also brought in some heavyweight talent to make that happen.

Much of the engineering is being led by Mark Stanton, a 59-year-old and Human Horizons’ CTO. He’s been working in the car industry for 35 years, at both Ford and Jaguar Land Rover, with his last role at a conventional maker being as head of JLR’s Special Vehicle Operations division.

He joined the Chinese startup last year and now heads a team of 400 engineers, and although he admits much of the reason for his radical career change was due to his unhappiness at the way JLR was going – “SVO was meant to be the pinnacle,” he says, “it should have been a great swansong, but it didn’t turn out that way” – he also found himself drawn to the freedom of what was truly a clean-sheet project.

His HiPhi 1 will be the first model from what is supposed to become a full brand. It is being pitched well above any of China’s other native EV makers, in terms of both brand aspiration and size: 5.2 metres long, accommodating up to six passengers in three rows.

The seats will all be power operated and able to slide into different configurations, the exterior doors also being electrically operated and without door handles; unlocking will be done with either an app or face recognition.

The back doors are rear hinged, with the gullwing flaps in the roof operating to improve access; both opening at the same time is described by HH as being a “superstar” setting. 18 sensors ensure the rear doors always has space to safely deploy and that nothing gets trapped in their operation.

Beneath the snappy design – Chinese buyers seem to want SUV bodies with the sleekest looking glasshouse – the HiPhi’s basic architecture seems entirely achievable.

Stanton says the bodywork uses both steel and aluminium with a lithium-ion battery pack mounted beneath the floor. There’s no official word on weight, although Stanton didn’t demur at CarAdvice’s suggesting that something this size would have to be well over two tonnes.

Power comes from a 200kW Bosch motor with a single-speed reduction gear; rear-wheel drive will be standard, with an all-wheel drive version using a second identical motor to turn the front axle. So equipped, an AWD HiPhi 1 will be able to get from 0-100km/h in 3.9-seconds.

The prototype reportedly has a 96kW/h battery, although Stanton said it is possible that smaller capacities will also be offered in production spec; it will have a range of up to 600km on the (generally optimistic) NEDC testing protocol.

As tends to be the way with Chinese car launches, performance and range were of seemingly peripheral concern when the HiPhi was unveiled in Shanghai last week.

Much more emphasis was given to just how smart the car is going to be, with no fewer than 562 sensors and the ability to intuitively alter settings based on occupant comfort and happiness. (“It will be able to play your favourite tune when you are feeling sad,” promised Kevin Chen, company COO).

It will also have a full set of LIDAR and radar sensors as well as cameras, allowing it to offer Level 3 autonomy from launch, and Level 4 soon afterwards.

Human Horizons is part of a Chinese government scheme to come up with a shared protocol for ‘C2X’ communications – Car to Infrastructure – with plans for ‘smart roads’ that are able to talk directly to the autonomous vehicles using them.

A 7km stretch of road near Shanghai has already been adapted to allow Human Horizons to test this.

Some other details might not make production. The car at the launch event featured a camera-based mirror system, something which isn’t currently legal for use in China.

It also had lights including LED panels capable of both showing different light graphics front and rear, but also of displaying characters (a modern take on those rear-screen message displays that were popular in the ‘eighties).

The front lights can also project detailed images; one idea shown at the unveiling being a zebra crossing pattern in front of the car to show pedestrians when it is safe to cross.

Stanton admits that his new company is very different to his old ones, but also thinks the emphasis on pure-EV tech puts him on the right side of history.

“I got religion I guess,” he admits.

“The environmental side has become really important to me. Cars have been around for 110 years and I’ve been working in the industry for 35 years and during that time I think I’ve made the world a worse place.”

Human Horizons is planning to build cars in a factory in Yangzheng belonging to Dongfeng Yueda Kia, a joint venture between Kia and Dongfeng.

Stanton wouldn’t be drawn on production volumes or prices, but admitted the plan is to “offer the Chinese market something it doesn’t currently have” and reckoned that the HiPhi would be seen as considerably upmarket of any existing Tesla models.

Overseas sales could follow – there is nothing on the car that could not be adapted for other parts of the world. Stanton admits he doesn’t know if Human Horizons will be one of the start-ups to take off, but insists it has the connections and funding to succeed.

If it doesn’t work out then I don’t really suffer,” he admits, “but I really want this to succeed, because we’ve got 1000 employees now and I want it to work for them.”