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Swedish car start-up passed off rebadged Chinese EV as its new ‘model Zero’

Last summer, Swedish car start-up UNITI showed its long-awaited new model ZERO car to investors. But it had simply imported a cheap Zhidou D3 electric car from China resprayed it, and added a new bumper, claims a devastating new investigation by Sweden's Filter Magazine.

Swedish car start-up passed off rebadged Chinese EV as its new 'model Zero'
Uniti founder Lewis Horne inside the prototype for the Uniti One in 2017. The car was an empty shell. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

The Lund-based start-up launched in 2017 with a wave of hype, raising some €1.1m in a crowd-funding campaign, forming partnerships with blue-chip companies like Siemens, E.on, and the German industrial robot giant Kuka, and winning plaudits from top politicians such as Sweden’s then environment minister, Isabella Lovin. 

“In Sweden, we are reinventing a piece of the world: the electric car,” the company’s charismatic Australian founder Lewis Horne gushed. “We have optimised the machine for its Achilles heel, which of course is the battery.”

The company claimed in 2017 to have developed an “innovation management system”, which had led to seven patent applications, with more on the way, and it quickly drew up plans to set up a fully automated factory in Landskrona. 

The scale of the company’s ambitions generated enormous media coverage, and soon Horne was crossing the globe, speaking at forum after forum. Even The Local was swept up in the excitement, asking in our headline whether Uniti had just crowdfunded the car of the future

But the factory in Landskrona never happened. Next, Horne began pledging that in 2020 Uniti would produce 300,000 cars at Silverstone in the UK. Two years later, not one functioning car has been produced. 

Finally, last summer, the first of the company’s long-suffering investors got to test drive a functioning car, the UNITI Zero. It looked nothing like the futuristic UNITI One prototypes, which had been shown a few years earlier: no streamlined design, no glass roof with in-built solar panel. “Is this just a rebadged Chinese car?” asked one sceptical investor.

Lewis Horne announces the Uniti Zero at an online meeting with investors last spring. The car was in fact a Zhidou D3. Photo: Screen Grab/Filter

“It’s going to be a real Uniti,” Horne responded. “Of course, it is built on a platform. Volvo and Polestar are built in the same place by the same people. But we are providing the quality, design, software, and technical solutions.” 

But according to the long investigation in Filter Magazine, it was a Zhidou D3, a low-cost Chinese electric vehicle that cannot even be legally taken on the roads in Sweden. All Uniti had done was spray it silver and change the design of the bumper.  

In November, the car site Bytbil was leaked accounts showing that the company had -9.4m kronor in its “own capital” account, and that Sweden’s national debt collection agency was trying to recover 7m kronor in debt. It then reported a 17.5m kronor loss, after which its external auditor resigned, expressing doubts about the company’s viability. 

A month later, on December 1st, Horne sent out a mail to shareholders saying that hoped-for investment by a major Chinese company was on the way but had been held up by new currency controls. He then asked for them to stump up a further 10m kronor so it could meet debts due on December 10th. 

It wasn’t until January 4th, that the company put out a release saying no Chinese investment was now coming. A board meeting, it said, was planned for the next week. 

Since then, there’s been silence. Horne, meanwhile, is residing on a sailing boat in the Caribbean after a four-month
sailing trip from Sweden.

Several former executives at the company told Filter that they had long ago lost faith in Horne. “Lewis could sell you a pencil for a million dollars,” a former head of PR, told the magazine.

Another former manager went further: “He thinks he is Elon Musk, but he is just a fraudster. He doesn’t have a clue about cars.”

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BUSINESS

Huawei loses Swedish appeal over 5G ban

A Swedish court on Wednesday rejected an appeal from China's Huawei over the government's decision to ban the network equipment giant from the rollout of 5G mobile network infrastructure in the Nordic country.

Huawei loses Swedish appeal over 5G ban

The administrative court of appeal in Stockholm said in a statement it believed it was fair to assume that the use of Huawei’s products in central functions of the 5G network “can cause harm to Sweden’s security.”

After the UK in the summer of 2020, Sweden became the second country in Europe and the first in the EU to explicitly ban Huawei from almost all of the network infrastructure needed to run its 5G mobile network.

Beijing warned at the time that the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority’s (PTS) decision could have “consequences” for the Scandinavian country’s companies in China, prompting Swedish telecom giant and Huawei competitor Ericsson to worry about retaliatory measures.

The PTS’ decision also included a provision that equipment already installed had to be removed by January 1, 2025, which the appeals court also confirmed.

“Sweden’s security is a particularly strong interest and the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority’s decision is based on a real, current and sufficiently serious threat to Sweden’s security,” judge Anita Linder said in a statement.

Huawei first appealed the decision to a lower court which also sided with the PTS in June 2021.

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