Unlike long-wheelbase luxury, the other major theme emerging from coverage of the Beijing Auto Show was hardly unique to the Chinese market. Electric vehicles and talk of automotive electrification have become a highlight of every auto show, with politicians joining executives to push EVs whether the show is in Detroit, Paris or Beijing. And yet, with a power grid that is said to be upwards of 80 percent coal-powered, China isn’t exactly the ideal candidate for an electric car offensive. China’s BYD F3DM was arguably the world’s first plug-in “on the market,” and yet the Shenzhen-based automaker only found 48 fleet sales last year, and still has yet to report a private sale. Conventional wisdom suggests that most Chinese buy at the lowest end of the market (if they’re lucky enough to afford it), while the “coastal elites” tend to spend their hard-earned profits on vehicles that convey prestige rather than eco-optimism. This is a model the global carmakers know how to work with… so why all the talk of EVs in China?
That’s not a difficult question for BYD’s export directro, Henry Li. He tells The Detroit News that,
It’s not just a question of carbon dioxide but energy safety. That’s why we need electric vehicles.
In other words, if BYD wants to pass the likes of Toyota by liberating the masses with $8,000 F3s, it needs to worry about China’s ability to fuel them all. With Chinese annual vehicle sales expected to approach 20m units by 2020, coal-power’s downsides will be outweighed by its cheap price and abundant domestic reserves (having the world’s fourth-largest lithium reserves doesn’t hurt either). After all, China already imports over half of its gasoline. Still, even the most optimistic estimates see EVs remaining a relatively niche phenomenon for the foreseeable future. Zhenjiang Geely VP Frank Zhao reckons that by EVs will just be reaching ten percent of production by 2020, and that gas power won’t be surpassed until mid-century. And this despite a government program with the goal of putting a half-million plug-ins on the road by 2015.
But the prospect of long-term growth has automakers scrambling, Chinese upstarts and global majors alike. BYD (which has signaled
that it is backing off the plug-in game) and Daimler confirm to the WSJ
[sub] that their jointly-developed, China-only EV
will be market-ready by 2013. According to the DetN
, Chery has signed a deal with Project Better Place to jointly develop EV technology for the Chinese market. GM has said
that it will produce the Volt in China for the Chinese market, and The General’s Kevin Wale gushed in a recent presser
The world premiere of the Volt MPV5 concept in Beijing demonstrates GM’s desire to make China a global focus of its advanced technology strategy
GM’s Chinese partner SAIC isn’t sitting on its hands waiting though, developing a 2013 EV for Volkswagen based on its Chinese-market Golf-variant, the Lavida. And in return, Volkswagen’s Martin Winterkorn matched Wale’s sentiments, saying
Success in China has a significant meaning for Volkswagen in achieving its electric car strategy worldwide
Even though BYD still has yet to find a single Chinese individual willing to buy the market’s first plug-in. What’s wrong with this picture? Most of the EV-boosting stories coming out of Beijing eventually mention a study by Ernst & Young [PDF
] which allegedly finds that 60 percent of Chinese people polled would “consider” buying a plug-in, with 82 percent saying a range of under 200 miles would be “acceptable.” E&Y’s Mike Hanley spins the results hard in favor of EV hype, claiming:
Even if only a small portion of the 65% of survey respondents who said they would consider a plug-in or electric vehicle when introduced are serious, there would still be more than enough demand to sell out the 2010 and 2011 production runs of the major and new manufacturers, while buying time to build out infrastructure and increase public awareness.
Which still doesn’t explain why the only plug-in on the market managed a mere 48 fleet sales in the last year. But then, hype does have a way of making reality seem less important.