Global Economics

China's First Plug-In Hybrid Car Rolls Out


The infrastructure for running electric cars is not quite in place in China, but BYD Auto's plug-in has a lot to offer

While U.S. automakers struggle to survive after the Senate rejected a bailout for Detroit, one company from China may be showing a way forward for the industry. On Dec. 15, BYD Auto got a jump on General Motors (GM), Toyota (TM), and Nissan (NSANY) by introducing in its home town of Shenzhen the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, the F3 DM. BYD's new car, with a $22,000 price tag, can run for up to 60 miles on a battery charged from an ordinary electricity outlet.

Early this year there was plenty of skepticism in auto circles about BYD's ability to put together a car that would ever become truly roadworthy. The company unveiled its plug-in hybrid at the Detroit Auto Show in January, and few outsiders figured the Chinese upstart, which had only been in the auto business since 2003, had the know-how to produce a commercially viable plug-in.

One person who seems to believe in the car's viability is Warren Buffett. In September, Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy, which is controlled by Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), paid $231 million for a 9.9% stake in BYD Auto's parent company BYD with a view to helping BYD distribute its cars in the U.S. by 2011.

U.S.-China Collaboration

Others believe in China's potential in developing cars that are more environmentally friendly. The F3 DM's China launch comes just a few days after Washington and Beijing announced plans to work together on green car technology: China's Science & Technology Ministry signed an agreement with the U.S. Energy Dept. to collaborate on battery technology to power cars on Dec. 11.

Although it's not much to look at—the F3 DM is based on the same platform as the gas-powered F3 sedan by BYD that resembles the Toyota Camry—driving one is remarkable. On a recent test drive at BYD's sprawling Shenzhen campus, the car's acceleration was impressive, going from zero to 60 in a respectable 10.5 seconds. What makes the experience so novel is the absence of engine noise, which heightens one's awareness of the sounds of rushing air and tires on the road. The car's top speed is about 100 mph, and it is capable of running for 60 miles before the batteries need recharging, which occurs automatically when the gas engine kicks in.

But the car faces an uphill climb to gain acceptance in a highly competitive Chinese auto market with dozens of manufacturers. After years of red-hot growth, China's vehicle sales are in a slump, falling 17% in November vs. a year ago. And Toyota's Prius has had a lackluster reception in China, having sold just 748 cars in the first 10 months of this year.

BYD's plug-in faces other challenges. Its battery pack takes about seven hours to recharge fully using a traditional power source, but most car owners live in apartment buildings with parking lots that don't provide electricity. "Infrastructure is a problem. It's not like North America, where everybody has independent housing where you have a plug-in in your garage," says Yale Zhang, director of greater China at automobile forecaster CSM Worldwide in Shanghai. "In cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing, people live in big buildings where there is nowhere to plug in." Henry Li, general manager of BYD Auto, acknowledges this problem and only projects sales of a few hundred in the next 12 months. "We need to try and demonstrate the cars and show their benefits," he says.

Ample Battery Experience

What BYD lacks in experience as an automaker it makes up for in battery expertise, says Li. It is the world's largest producer of cell-phone batteries, boasting a 30% market share, and it also makes batteries for everything from power tools to laptops. "We have rich production and R&D experience, so we were able to solve all the technological barriers and turn this into commercial use," he says.

The auto division's 3,000-strong research and development team developed a ferrous battery technology that he says is superior to the nickel metal hydrate battery used in the Toyota Prius. "For them the gas engine is the main driving mode; for us it's a small engine and a big battery," says Li. Actually, the F3 DM is based on 100 3.3-volt batteries strapped together and stored under the rear seat. Packs are good for about 2,000 recharges or 100,000 miles. The engine is only 1 liter and is capable of recharging the battery when the car is switched to gasoline mode.

Li figures the potential cost savings on fuel are a big selling point, not to mention the vehicles' smaller carbon footprint. He reckons it takes about $1.40 worth of electricity to power the car for 100 kilometers, compared with $7 for a conventional F3 gasoline model. BYD expects its first cars to be delivered to the city government of Shenzhen and China Construction Bank, which signed an order for them at the launch. Paul Lin, marketing manager of BYD's auto export division, said other banks and state-owned enterprises might follow suit as they see running a fleet of green cars as a key element of corporate social responsibility in China, where foul air in the cities is a huge problem. He says the Prius is still primarily a gasoline-powered car and is thus not viewed by Chinese corporate buyers as particularly green.

Still, it will take a lot of driving to justify the F3 DM's price tag, more than twice the gasoline version of the F3, which is available for between $7,500 and $9,900. Another challenge is how to set up quick-charge ports in Chinese cities, which will be essential for the success of BYD's fully electric vehicle, the E6, which it plans to roll out later next year. The company is exploring cooperation with local utilities to set up quick-charge ports that would allow batteries to restore 50% of capacity in 10 minutes. However, these would require a stronger current than is now available: Household outlets provide about 20 amps of current, while a quick charger would need about 100 amps of juice.

BYD has momentum on its side. The F3 was China's best-selling sedan in October, shipping more than 15,000 cars. In the first 10 months of the year, BYD's total sales grew 36%, compared with industrywide sales of just 10.25%. BYD's Hong Kong-traded shares are down 12% this year, compared with a nearly 50% fall in the Hang Seng China Enterprise Index of mainland stocks, thanks to the Buffet stake and strong auto sales. The company, which had sales of $3.1 billion in 2007 and earnings of $235 million, will have sales of $3.93 billion and profits of $196 million this year, estimates brokerage CLSA.


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