By Matthew Campbell and Ying Tian
Americans associate electric cars with the luxury of Tesla, the unrivaled conveyance of choice for the Sand Hill Road set. But these newly assembled vehicles, part of a family of SUVs called the Tang that retails from about 240,000 yuan ($35,700), are aimed squarely at middle-class drivers in the world’s largest electric vehicle market, China. Their manufacturer, BYD Co., is in turn the No. 1 producer of plug-in vehicles globally, attracting a tiny fraction of the attention of Elon Musk’s company while powering, to a significant extent, a transition to electrified mobility that’s moving faster in China than in any other country. Founded in Shenzhen in the mid-1990s as a manufacturer of batteries for brick-size cellphones and digital cameras, BYD now has about a quarter-million employees and sells as many as 30,000 pure EVs or plug-in hybrids in China every month, most of them anything but status symbols. Its cheapest model, the e1, starts at 60,000 yuan ($8,950) after subsidies.
BYD’s cars and other vehicles—a Tonka set of electric buses, forklifts, utility vans, street sweepers, and garbage trucks—run exclusively on batteries the company manufactures itself. Its sprawling Chinese facilities can produce almost 30 gigawatt-hours of power annually, more than enough to run every iPhone ever made. Last year, BYD opened one of the world’s largest battery plants, a 10 million-square-foot facility in Qinghai province, and in February it broke ground on another of similar size. This empire has made a billionaire of its founder and chairman, a former government chemist named Wang Chuanfu. It’s also been a boon for another high-net-worth individual, Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought a 10 percent stake in BYD a decade ago.
Even for a nation of superlatives, China has adopted EVs at a stunning pace. Thanks to generous government subsidies and municipal regulations that make owning an internal combustion vehicle in many cities inconvenient, expensive, or both, China accounts for more than half the world’s purchases of electric cars. More EVs were sold in Shanghai last year than in Germany, France, or the U.K.; the city of Hangzhou, smallish by Chinese standards, had higher sales than all of Japan. Virtually all of Shenzhen’s 20,000 taxis are electric BYDs, compared with fewer than 20 of any make in New York. More than 500,000 electric buses ply Chinese roads, compared with fewer than 1,000 in the U.S.
Eager to beat back city smog and support a growing industry, the Chinese government has said it intends to eliminate fossil fuel-powered vehicles by an as-yet-unspecified date, probably about 2040. Given the scale of the market, China’s demands stand to shape 21st century carmaking every bit as much as the American consumer’s shaped the 20th—giving it pole position in the transportation industry and all the strategic advantages that entails.
This acceleration toward an electric future is a triumph for Wang, 53, who began advocating for mass EV adoption more than a decade ago. It’s also creating an unprecedented challenge for his company. Attracted by China’s huge customer base and clear policy direction, Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co., and other global automakers are introducing dozens of electric models tailored to local tastes. They’ll arrive just as the Chinese government scales back purchase subsidies, a move that will disproportionately affect manufacturers such as BYD, whose products skew toward the affordable end of the market. Meanwhile, the company’s chances overseas are threatened by a wave of anti-China sentiment, expressed through measures like a recent U.S. effort to ban Chinese bus producers from receiving federal funds. Investors are worried: BYD’s Hong Kong-listed shares—the best-performing on the planet during one stretch in September 2017—have slumped 18 percent over the past 12 months.