Germany's Daimler, China's Geely join forces on Smart brand

German automaker Daimler and China's Geely, its largest single shareholder, said Thursday that they are setting up a joint venture to develop and operate Daimler's Smart compact car brand worldwide as an all-electric car.

The two companies said the 50-50 joint venture should be finalized by the end of this year. They didn't disclose financial details.

The agreement calls for the next generation of Smart cars to be designed by the Mercedes-Benz design network, with engineering by Geely. The companies said the electric models will be assembled at a new factory in China and global sales are expected to begin in 2022.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said that, separately, his company's Mercedes-Benz division will produce a compact electric vehicle at the existing Smart plant in Hambach, France.

Production and sale of Smart cars began in 1998. They are currently made in Hambach and, under a partnership agreement with France's Renault, at a Renault plant in Novo Mesto, Slovenia. The brand had already embarked on plans for a switch to all-electric propulsion, with only electric Smarts sold in the U.S., Canada and Norway since 2017.

Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, said that Daimler, Geely and Smart all stand to gain from the plan, which he said would give Smart "a last chance to establish itself" and open up the Chinese market.

Geely founder Li Shufu last year took a 9.7 percent stake in Daimler. Dudenhoeffer said the joint venture shows that Li "takes the cooperation with Daimler very seriously and isn't an ordinary equity investor," and that the collaboration could be very successful for the Mercedes-Benz parent.

Daimler's share price was steady in Frankfurt on Thursday afternoon, at 51.50 euros ($57.98).