BEIJING: United States electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla has held talks with China's Tianjin Lishen to supply batteries for its new Shanghai factory, and two people with direct knowledge of the matter said the pair signed a preliminary agreement.
The companies have yet to decide how large an order Tesla would place, and Lishen is still working out what battery cell size Tesla would require, one of the people said.
Details of the agreement were unclear. In Chinese, a preliminary agreement could refer to mere acknowledgment through to a statement of intent.
The talks come as Tesla looks to localize battery cell production in the face of mounting competition from a swathe of domestic EV makers in the world's largest car market, where a Sino-US trade war is increasing the cost of US imports.
Tesla said it received quotes from Tianjin Lishen to supply batteries for the Shanghai plant but did not proceed further.
"We have not signed any agreement of any kind with them," a Tesla spokeswoman told Reuters.
Lishen told Reuters that it had not signed any agreement with Tesla to supply batteries to the factory.
The first source reiterated that a preliminary agreement was signed. The second source said Tesla's supplier certification process usually took a long time to be finalised. The people declined to be identified because the discussions were private.
Japan's Panasonic is currently Tesla's exclusive battery cell supplier. Its shares closed down 2.7 per cent after the Reuters report. It also announced a joint venture with Toyota Motor on Tuesday (Jan 22) to make EV batteries.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said in November the US company would manufacture all its battery modules and packs at the Shanghai factory and planned to diversify its sources.
"Cell production will be sourced locally, most likely from several companies (incl Pana), in order to meet demand in a timely manner," Musk said in a tweet in November.
Panasonic said in a statement it was studying various possibilities with regards to Tesla's Shanghai plant, but nothing had been decided. It declined to comment on the possibility of losing exclusive-supplier status with Tesla.
Other battery makers in the running for contracts could include Contemporary Amperex Technology and LG Chem.
Tesla broke ground on the US$2 billion so-called Gigafactory, its first in China, earlier this month and plans to begin making Model 3 EV there by the end of the year.
Musk has said the factory will produce "more affordable" vehicles for the Chinese auto market.
Lishen, which says its clients range from Apple and Samsung Electronics to Geely and Hyundai Motor, has joined other battery makers in aggressively pursuing contracts with the rapidly growing EV industry.
The Chinese company started mass production of the same type of cylindrical battery made by Panasonic for Tesla's Model 3 in 2017, in the city of Suzhou about 100km away from Shanghai.
The joint venture between Panasonic and Toyota leverages the heft of one of the world's largest automakers and one of the world's biggest battery makers to expand their EV push.
It builds on the agreement that the pair announced in late 2017 on joint development of batteries with higher energy density in a prismatic cell arrangement.
It would also help Panasonic cut its heavy reliance on Tesla, whose production delays have weighed on the Japanese company's earnings.
Panasonic planned to shift most of its prismatic battery-related equipment and facilities in Japan and China to the joint venture, while those producing batteries for Tesla would remain under the company, a source said.