I was in Chongqing a few weeks ago. Boy has that city changed since I first visited it in 2003.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I was on an EV panel at the 2014 China Auto Summit http://mktsummit.org , and also visited the Chonqqing Auto Show on media day.
What a pleasant change from Auto China. I could actually walk around without shoving through crowds of “journalists.” Of course, the Chongqing show is considerably smaller than Auto China and also is consumer-oriented – visitors can actually buy cars there. Since I was in town anyway, however, it was well worth the visit.
I went to a few press conferences, but mainly I just walked around and looked at car and for electric vehicles. I saw lots of cars, but found only one EV, the Zinoro E1, a pure electric vehicle produced by the BMW Brilliance joint venture. http://tinyurl.com/qf4lpbu
(I do not count the Lexus CT200h regular hybrid in the EV category but it had a big stand all to itself in Chongqing.)
Oliver Liang, Brand Management Director for BMW Brilliance Zinoro China, was a fellow panelist at the Summit so I already knew something about the marketing plan for the 1E. I picked up several pamphlets at the show, as well. The car itself is nice-looking enough. But what impressed me is the thought BMW Brilliance has put into the marketing plan, which centers on the concept of “worry free.”
The vehicle is only available to be leased. It offers 1, 2, or 3-year or daily rental plans. Costs are respectively RMB11, 000/month, 9,000/month, 7,400/month, or RMB 400 a day. “We have prepared a range of convenient, worry-free services and flexible rental plans tailored to meet urban and individual needs,” said the pamphlet.
It includes a free maintenance package and warranty since Chinese consumers worry about the maintenance costs of a car with new technology such as an EV. “You will be able to keep your Zinoro 1E in optimal condition without incurring additional maintenance costs,” said the pamphlet.
If the car does need to go into the shop, Zinoro provides a free loaner car, and in the “rare event” of a breakdown, offers year-round, 24-hour roadside assistance as part of the lease.
China has few public charging spots. And who wouldn’t rather charge at home anyway? So the lease includes a wall-mounted charging unit and free installation (up to RMB 12, 0000).
The 1E became available for lease in December of 2013. It is currently only available in Shanghai and Beijing though I suppose someone from another city, say Hangzhou, could lease one in Shanghai and drive it home. If they could find charging stations along the way….
It will be interesting to see if this plan succeeds in moving some electric metal for BMW Brilliance Zinoro.
Tesla discovering China’s special characteristics
Meanwhile, I’ve been getting a stream of Chinese-language messages from Tesla on my Weixin feed concerning launch plans and services in China. But remember a blog I wrote a while back regarding issues Tesla would likely face in China, especially where building a charging infrastructure was concerned?
Well, anecdotal evidence and actual evidence suggests Tesla is off to a bit of a rocky start in China.
First the actual evidence. An e-commerce entrepreneur in Inner Mongolia smashed the windshield of his new Model S to protest glitches in the delivery process. Now that was a bit silly. But this is China. Buyers of an RMB 1 million BEV don’t like to feel slighted. http://tinyurl.com/mb2asho
Now the anecdotal stuff: A friend has a neighbor who bought a Model S with the 85 kWh battery. Charging does not seem to be a big issue for this new owner, for now. He lives close to Hongqiao Airport, and works in Anting, which is not that far from Hongqiao. One of Shanghai’s two fast-charging stations is in Anting (the other is in Pudong). So the Tesla owner can charge while at work, for now.
That may change if Tesla ownership reached the levels Tesla has predicted and competition for charging spots emerges. But I guess Tesla plans to add more charging stations if permitted. The owner also has a garage, so he can charge at home overnight.
Other aspects are not so sanguine. First, some interesting details about the licensing and tax: He was exempt from the license plate cost, which is at RMB 70,000 in Shanghai right now. But he did still have to pay the import tax. So the total cost of the Model S was RMB 1,000,000! Tesla touted its fair price policy of charging only RMB 734,000 for the Model S based on the following breakdown. So I guess there was an extra expense Tesla missed.
$81,070 US price
$3,600 Shipping & handling
$19,000 Customs duties & taxes
734k CNY @ 6.05 exchange rate
Also a problem Tesla may not have anticipated – the touchpad for the infotainment control system doesn’t fully function in China. GPS, traffic, mapping of locations don’t work, said my friend. Neither does over-the-air updates, which will be a real problem as Tesla issues those rather frequently.
I sent an email to Tesla here in the U.S. asking how it planned to resolve these issues and hadn’t heard back at time of posting. I will add that info if/when I get it.
Will the requirement that 30% of municipal government purchases of new energy vehicles in the most recent Chinese government’s policy result in a mismanagement of resources? It will if automakers adopt BYD’s http://www.byd.com strategy. The Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer is building plants all over China to gain customers.
While the strategy may grow BYD’s sales both locally and globally, it could result in a massive waste of what is apparently dwindling capital. And as BYD’s missteps here in California prove, it may also sap a lot of BYD’s human capital as it works to resolve problems.
I started thinking about this as I read a story in Automotive News China regarding BYD’s plan to assemble buses in the central China city of Wuhan in order to convince the Wuhan government to buy BYD’s K9 electric bus for its local fleets. http://www.autonewschina.com/en/index.asp
This strategy is wrong on several levels. BYD will spend 3 billion yuan, or $480 million at current exchange rates, to build the plant, according to Chinese media. It will initially produce 1,000 K9 buses and, in a second phase whose cost was not revealed, it will assemble other BYD electric vehicles.
Selling to the Wuhan government is a challenge. The city is home to Dongfeng, one of China’s largest state-owned automakers (the former Third Auto Works). Dongfeng http://www.dfmc.com.cn is China’s largest producer of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. It just announced a partnership with Volvo to produce commercial vehicles. http://tinyurl.com/mr58azo And it partners with Nissan http://www.dongfeng-nissan.com.cn and PSA http://www.dpca.com.cn/ to produce passenger vehicles.
And, of course, Dongfeng has an obligatory Dongfeng EV Co. subsidiary. http://www.dfev.com.cn/dfev/publish/ According to its website, Dongfeng EV Co. produces hybrid electric buses as well as a range of small low-speed EVs and a tiny passenger EV. But I’ll bet it will start turning out plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or battery electric vehicles, in the future as the central government pressures local governments to boost purchase of EVs. Why not produce those vehicles right in Wuhan so the money stays at home?
BYD may argue that the latest new energy vehicle policy from the central government requires at least 30% of such purchases be from automakers outside of the area and having a plant in Wuhan makes it the most likely company to grab those sales. Is that worth a $480 million bet?
If Wuhan were the only city where BYD has employed this strategy, it might be worth it But Wuhan will be the sixth city in China where BYD plans a bus plant. According to the press report, BYD also has agreements with Changsha, Nanjing, Tianjin, Dalian, and Hangzhou to assemble electric buses.
BYD is based in the south China city of Shenzhen, where it also produces electric buses, naturally. Will these additional plants merely assemble buses from kits sent from the Shenzhen plant? Probably. Then why not just drive the buses there from Shenzhen? No jobs or investment in the local where BYD hopes to sell buses, of course.
Internationally, BYD is also quickly expanding its manufacturing footprint. This is not a bad strategy. But does BYD have the human and financial capital to support this kind of expansion?
I am most familiar with BYD’s plans to produce electric buses in the city of Lancaster, near Los Angeles, where I live. That plant, the launch of which I attended in May of 2013, has encountered a series of potholes on the road to selling it buses here in California. Most recently, the southern California city of Long Beach announced it would cancel its contract to buy 10 BYD electric buses because BYD violated a California Labor Commission law in producing the buses. http://tinyurl.com/kkgjplp
BYD will be allowed to re-bid for the contract when the violation is corrected. BYD America senior vice president Stella Li said in a statement: “We are confident we will prevail in any competitive re-bid in the future for the same reason we prevailed last year: Our superior technology.”
This was not the first problem for the Lancaster plant, however. In July of 2013, cracks appeared above the rear door in a BYD bus undergoing federally-mandated tests. http://tinyurl.com/ltpdbd2 The cracks were a result of faulty welding at the plant in China where the bus was produced, said BYD. “There were no major design flaws discovered. However, there were some minor findings that we wanted to evaluate and review,” said Michael Austin, vice president of BYD America.
In November of 2013, BYD was hit with a $99,245 fine from the California Labor Commission for allowing workers to take one 20 minute break rather than two 10-minute breaks. BYD was also charged with under-paying some Chinese employees. The under payment charge was later dropped; the labor fine was reduced to $37,803. http://tinyurl.com/l97tzr3
None of these problems derailed BYD’s Lancaster plant plans. But they delayed the launch are costing BYD time and money to fix. Will they be repeated in other countries? BYD is also expanding its manufacturing footprint in other parts of the world. In 2012 it announced it would build electric buses in Bulgaria. It has also talked of plans to build a plant in Brazil and in Europe.
It might seem as if BYD has endless funding to build all these plants. That is not the case. The Hong Kong-listed company is raising money through stock sales. In late May it raised 3.4 billion yuan in its largest stock sale since the company’s 2002 initial public offering, according to Bloomberg.
Says Bloomberg: “The funds give Shenzhen-based BYD room to step up investments and bolster production of electric vehicles as governments worldwide step up efforts to fight pollution. Selling shares will also help alleviate the strain on a balance sheet saddled with surging debt.
The company has reason to raise funds via shares over bonds or loans. BYD’s net debt, or interest-bearing borrowings minus cash and equivalents, climbed 34 percent to a record 20.3 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) at the end of last year.”
BYD is betting that its electric vehicles will be its future. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/23/china-byd-sales-idUSL3N0O915T20140523 Meanwhile, sales of its gasoline-powered vehicles have plunged, along with its profits. In the first quarter of 2014, BYD’s profits were down 89 percent. BYD also engages in other “green” industries, including solar panels, LED lighting, and batteries.
To be sure, profits did surge last year after BYD reduced its auto dealership network and reduced losses at its solar business with the help of government incentive money. That is not a sustainable growth plan, however. BYD’s belief that electric vehicles are the future may pay off. But building plants all over China and the world is a dangerous way to back up that belief.
Suppliers and automakers are being forced by the Chinese government to take a leap of faith where electric vehicles are concerned. That is what I came away from Auto China thinking.
The companies are investing millions of dollars to supply and produce EVs in a country where the market for such vehicles is currently tiny. They don’t have much choice – Beijing is leaning on them very heavily to do so.
Many of those companies are keeping their fingers crossed that Beijing will pull some policy rabbit out of its hat to incentivize regular hybrid as well as electric vehicle sales, thus adding to the market for their products.
They also are also hoping Beijing will compel local governments to build out of charging station networks, without which there is little chance of a consumer market for EVs taking off.
An example of such investment: Siemens AG announced at the show that it had formed a joint venture with Chinese automaker Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. (BAIC) to produce components for electric vehicles.
Siemens holds 60 percent of the JV, which will start with small volume production this year at an existing Siemens plant in China while building a greenfield plant near Beijing, due to start production in 2015. No amount for the investment was announced, but it must be the equivalent of at least US $100 million.
“We believe in a new energy future, not just for pure electric vehicles but hybrid as well,” Jorg Grotendorst, CEO of Inside e-car, part of the Drive Technologies Division at Siemens AG told reporters gathered in a tent outside one of the giant exhibition halls at the Beijing International Exhibition Center.
He was part of a group of Siemens executives that had come to China to announce the formation of Beijing Siemens Automotive E-Drive Systems Co. Ltd., as the JV will be known. It will produce “highly efficient” inverters and motors for hybrid and battery electric vehicles, says Siemens. http://tinyurl.com/n8nwj6j
The new plant, which Siemens http://www.siemens.com says will begin volume production in 2015, will have an annual capacity more than 100,000 units per year. But exactly what kind of vehicles those components will go into isn’t clear, even to Siemens itself apparently
I asked the execs how they saw the market panning out in terms of BEVs versus PHEVs versus hybrids. Siemens didn’t know, said Grotendorst, but it believed PHEVs would be the interim technology.
They said Siemens is interested in BEVs and PHEVs (and hybrids as well judging by Grotendorst’s remark) and would supply BAIC, its initial customer, with power-electronics and electronic motors for its S, C, and L series cars.
However, the JV would start by supplying commercial vehicles, said an executive. Indeed, the plant’s components represent a hedging move on Siemen’s part – the performance scale of the models BAIC will use the components in ranges from 45 to 200kW says Siemens.
Size does matter and in this case it is small
Despite hyperbolic plans by the Chinese central government regarding electric vehicle production and sales, and incentives for BEVs and PHEVs, sales have thus far been miniscule.
In 2013 sales of battery-electric vehicles in China were 14,604 units according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Plug-in hybrid sales were 3,038 units. The total vehicle market was nearly 22 million. Most of those BEV and PHEV sales were likely to government fleets, which would include local bus and taxi fleets as those companies are generally owned by the local government.
Siemens is right to place its near-term hopes in an expansion of PHEV sales, however. The charging station network in Chinese cities – even in Beijing, where you would think the government would try to set an example – is abysmally small. As my friend and former colleague Yang Jian pointed out in his column in Automotive News China, http://www.autonewschina.com at the end of 2013 Beijing had only 69 charging stations.
Yang, too, figures that PHEVs will be the most-utilized type of EV in the near term despite the fact that central government subsidies for BEVS are as high as 57,000 RMB (not counting local subsidies) and PHEVS only 33,500 RMB.
China recognizes that until battery costs come down and/or range comes up (which are linked since you can get a lot of range if you are willing to pay for it…) – and when that will occur is uncertain — a PHEV, which offers some pure electric range combined with an engine that runs on some liquid fuel, will be the most useful form of EV.
Suppliers recognize that some form of electrification is in China’s future. China has strict fuel economy deadlines looming in the future – the most intimidating the 2020 deadline for 5 liters per 100 kilometers. “This is a huge challenge for everyone right now,” David Xu, EVP at Bosch China, http://www.bosch.com told me at the show. Indeed, it is nigh impossible to achieve that without some form of at least mild electrification.
Bosch sees gasoline technology that boosts fuel efficiency — such as gasoline direct injection and turbocharging — as its biggest business opportunity in China in the near term. But it is also pushing its 48V mild hybrid system, which includes start-stop and a booster for starting and can boost fuel economy by 15 percent, says Xu.
Of course, Beijing hasn’t incentivized mild hybrid technology though that would help it achieve its goal of cutting back dependence on imported oil (though the western press seems fixated on the pollution in China and convinced that Beijing’s push for
EVs is tied to reducing pollution, much of China’s electricity is produced by burning coal so more EVs won’t necessarily have much impact on air quality. Cars are a convenient and visible scapegoat, however.) Nor is it currently incentivizing regular (i.e. non plug-in) hybrid cars. The Japanese hold too many patents in that area and Beijing doesn’t want incentive money to go to the Japanese automakers.
Meanwhile, Xu says new energy vehicles, which includes BEVs, PHEVs, and fuel-cell vehicles, won’t account for more than six percent of the market in 2020. Beijing’s inaction on building out a charging network – or even enforcing a national plug standard – is part of the problem, says Xu. “Talking about mass production to make a profit, it is really a struggle for everybody,” he says.
Still, automakers will continue to talk about investing, and actually invest, in EVs, he says. “This is kind of a political task for them,” he says. “They have to do it.”
An executive at another European supplier tells me that the joint venture automakers are telling him that Beijing is coming to them and saying, “You show us a plan to build an EV, homologate it here, and we will approve your expansion.”
Of course the individual consumer isn’t the only customer for EVs. Indeed, as I have written in this blog many time, fleet vehicles are the best market for both BEVs and PHEVs.
Siemens recognizes that fact. It will start by supplying commercial vehicles, says Siegfried Russwurm, CEO of Siemens Industry Sector. As for the charging station issue, and the lack of standards where that is concerned, “The future is wireless,” he says.
Being a China watcher always involves parsing official statements to figure out who has the upper hand in Beijing and, if someone has some clout, what that person’s stand on an issue is. So I have been watching statements by Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Wan_Gang%7C2917 and Minister of Industry and Information Technology Miao Wei http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Miao_Wei%7C1317 to figure out where each stands and who might carry the day.
Suddenly, however, a new official – more important than the above two — has burst on the scene voicing strong support for the electric vehicle industry. Alas, I don’t think his support will result in a sudden rush of EV purchases.
The latest official to weigh in on the future of EVs in China is Ma Kei, a vice premier and Politburo member. http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Ma_Kai%7C720 Let me thank my friend and former colleague Yang Jian for his column in Automotive News China http://www.autonewschina.com that helped me figure out the impact of statements by vice premier Ma Kai. Yang Jian says Ma is senior to both Miao and Wan and that he was instrumental in convincing the central government to cut purchase subsidies for battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles by only 5 percent this year rather than the originally planned 10 percent. Ma apparently decided to push for the smaller cut in subsidies after visiting three local companies producing EVs, BYD Co http://www.byd.com , Jianghuai Automobile Co. http://www.jac.com.cn , and Chery Automobile Co. http://www.cheryinternational.com , in early January.
Besides urging more central government support for EV purchases, Ma hit on the other key points to putting more EVs on China’s roads: More use in public transportation fleets; more charging stations; less local protectionism. He also suggested waiving the 10 percent new vehicle purchase sales tax for EVs.
A bit of background: Last September, the central government issued a revised subsidy policy for electric vehicles which said that subsidies for various electric vehicles would decrease over the next two years. The 60,000 RMB subsidy for battery electric passenger vehicles was to decrease by 10 percent in 2014 and 20 percent in 2015. Subsidies of up to 35,000 RMB for plug-in hybrid electric passenger vehicles would fall by the same percentages. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-24140329
Apparently Ma Kai has managed to get those reductions revised to 5 percent in 2014 and 10 percent in 2015. And government support for the EV industry will continue after 2015, though details weren’t given. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-09/china-reduces-electric-car-subsidy-cuts-in-air-quality-campaign.html
That’s great. But it won’t be enough to get Chinese consumers to buy electric vehicles in any volume. The initial subsidies did not encourage EV purchases in 2013 when some 17,600 plug-in electric vehicles were sold in China, including battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric. Most of those sales were almost certainly fleet vehicles. Chinese consumers still worry about the high price of vehicles that depend on technology they consider risky, not to mention the lack of a charging infrastructure.
Ma’s support won’t change that. What such statements do accomplish in China is to reassure companies that are producing or could produce electric vehicles that the government will still put their money where their mouth is. That will be enough to keep China’s automakers continuing to play lip service to their grand plans for EV production in order to get a piece of that EV subsidy money.
According to a supplier friend of mine, an executive at a large multinational supplier, what he hears from the local automakers is that they will keep trumpeting their plans to produce EVs, and producing some, to show Beijing they are ready to produce a lot of EVs if necessary, to meet stiffer fuel efficiency requirements for example (the U.S. automakers will be nodding their heads). “We do this as long as the government is funding it,” said an exec at one Chinese automaker.
Ma’s statements are still a positive in the overall picture, of course. It tips the scales on the side of optimism. Wan Gang has generally been more positive about EVs than Miao Wei though both talk about EVs as the future. Both worry about a factor that will certainly slow the growth of China’s EV sector and stifle competition and thus innovation – local protectionism.
Said Wan Gang: With the production and sales numbers of new energy vehicles China saw in 2013, “we can’t hope to realize the goal of 500,000” NEVs on the road by 2015. Between cooperation and competition, one is not more important than the other in growing the EV sector, said Wan. “Local protectionism is the biggest obstruction to more growth,” said Wan. Miao Wei also worried about local protectionism but perhaps more realistically ruminated on the need for less expensive technology to truly grow the sector.
Both are right. Ma’s rosy future won’t happen without an end to local protectionism and a technological leap.
I wrote the piece below for Automobile and Parts, a Chinese publication. http://view.online.zcom.com/full/33764/ Since I wrote it news came out that the State Grid will allow private investment in charging networks. http://view.online.zcom.com/full/33764/
But no timeline was mentioned. And no news re: Will South Grid follow suite. Allowing private investment offers a sliver of hope for Tesla. But as always in China, implementation will be the tricky part…..
Tesla’s business model – a non-automotive company that has successfully produced and marketed a pure electric luxury vehicle – seems to be much admired by some parties in China. And despite disputes regarding its distribution model with automotive dealers in some states in the U.S., Tesla http://www.teslamotors.com has sold well here. Based on that popularity, Tesla founder Elon Musk and his representatives in China are confidently predicting that Tesla will sell around 5,000 Model S electric sedans in China in 2014 and as many as 22,000 in 2015.
Those sales numbers are based on an underestimation of the difficulties Tesla will face in China, however, and won’t be achieved. Furthermore, Tesla will likely have trouble making a profit in China if the costs and difficulty of building out a distribution network and charging network are considered.
First, there is the price of the car itself. Tesla made a big deal out of the fact that it will charge “only” 734,000 RMB for a Model S sedan with an 85 kWh battery. That is the cost of the vehicle plus shipping and handling, customs and duties, and a value-added tax. Tesla’s electric vehicles come with several optional battery sizes; larger batteries cost more but provide more range. A car with an 85kWh battery provides about 300 miles per charge.
Tesla says it goal is to make the same level of profit per car no matter where it is sold. Even if Tesla isn’t making more profit, however, the price for the Model S is still more expensive then the majority of luxury cars sold in China. That price is not set in stone, by the way. Tesla will adjust the cost of the Model S in China when the USD/RMB exchange rate fluctuates, according to a Tesla spokesperson. Would someone prefer to buy an electric vehicle, even a Tesla, over say a similarly-priced gasoline-powered Porsche 911? Only a few would. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jackperkowski/2014/02/12/can-tesla-outsell-porsche-in-china/
If someone does want to buy a Tesla in China, they first have to find a Tesla store. Tesla’s distribution model relies on company-owned stores rather than franchised dealerships. In the U.S., cars are sold through dealerships owned by individuals rather than the automakers themselves. That has made Tesla the target of a handful of lawsuits here in the U.S. by the owners of dealerships. Those lawsuits claim Tesla violated the state laws governing auto dealer ownership (each of the 50 states in the U.S. has its own auto franchise law.).
In China, Tesla may not run into such lawsuits. But is will need to build out a nationwide Tesla store network to even begin to reach the sales numbers it predicts. http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Tesla-s-Musk-sees-Model-S-China-sales-rivaling-5175447.php
So far, it has one store, in Beijing. Elon Musk has said Tesla will have stores or service centers in six metropolitan areas in China by the end of 2014. Let’s say Tesla succeeds in opening those stores by then. Will each of those stores manage to sell nearly 1,000 units each? Let’s assume they will. To achieve sales of 22,000 in 2015, Tesla will have to quadruple the number of stores it has in China, and each will have to sell nearly 1,000 units each.
I think distribution i.e. a network of stores will be the easy element of achieving Tesla’s ambitions in China, however. I believe the biggest barrier to its success will be its inability to construct a nationwide charging network. Rather than rely on public charging, Tesla constructs a network of Superchargers that only owners of its EVs can use. To date it has installed 74 Supercharger stations in North America. Each station costs US$150,000 to build, according to a Tesla spokesperson. This does not include maintenance or monthly energy costs. “We cannot yet speak to cost of location of Supercharger stations in China,” said the spokesperson. “Elon plans to visit in March and more details will be unveiled at that time.”
Elon may find that building Supercharger stations in China will be not only expensive, but very difficult. For one, each station charges at 120kw. “That is more power than an electric bus consumes,” exclaimed an executive working on EV charging networks at a foreign automaker in China.
He also asked if Tesla has approval from the State Grid http://www.sgcc.com.cn and the Southern Grid http://www.csg.cn , China’s two largest utilities, to construct the Supercharger network. That is, are they willing to provide the power? What’s in it for them? Then there are the Supercharger stations themselves, said the executive. Have they been approved by Chinese regulators?
Elon Musk has succeeded when others have thought he would fail, and his self-confidence is well-earned. He founded and sold Pay Pal, an online money transfer service, for $1.5 billion. Musk also founded and still runs SpaceX, a company which designs and launches rockets. In China, however, he may meet his match.
I like to talk to little-known (to me at least) companies operating in China’s electric vehicle world to get a broader perspective. In that spirit, when I saw a notice that a U.K.-based company called Sevcon http://www.sevcon.com had formed a joint venture with a Chinese supplier named Risenbo to supply motor controllers and other components to China’s electric vehicle makers http://www.marketwatch.com/story/sevcon-announces-electric-vehicle-joint-venture-in-china-2014-02-04-221844958, I sent a note to Matthew Boyle, Sevcon’s president and CEO, asking if we could chat.
Talking with Boyle opened a window for me to the many layers of the EV industry, and made me think again about how many companies will be disappointed if China doesn’t pull off its grand plan to produce lots of EVs. The opposite could also be true, or course. China may forge ahead and produce many EVs – though mainly for fleets, in my opinion.
Getting in on the ground floor as Sevcon is doing is the way to be positioned to benefit if China does turn into an EV-full country. That’s Matt Boyle’s attitude. “If you are prepared to take a long term view that China is a market that will grow substantially, if you’re not there now you will be too late,” he told me.
Sevcon produces inverters to change DC current into AC current, AC and DC motor controllers, DC/DC converters, and battery chargers for zero-emission vehicles and hybrids. “We try to take as much in electrical components as we can,” says Boyle.
Doing business worldwide, Sevcon has mostly marketed to companies supplying off-road vehicles such as quadracyles, as well as fork lifts and motorcycles.
But Sevcon’s components can also be used in on-road EVs, including fleet vehicles and passenger cars. With the Risenbo joint venture it hopes to capitalize on what many anticipate will be a growing demand in China for electric vehicles in the passenger car, commercial vehicle, and scooter segments. Sevcon’s on-road business has really taken off in the last two years, says Boyle. “We are well known in off-road market; what has become an emerging market for us is on-road,” he told ChinaEV.
As for its partner, I couldn’t find much info on Risenbo Technology Co. Ltd., other than that is Tier 1 Chinese supplier. The 50/50 joint venture will to be known as Sevcon (Hubei) New Energy Technology Co. Ltd. Boyle got to know Risenbo through an industry trade group in the U.K.
Risenbo already supplies components to automotive, bus, and truck manufacturers in China, according to Boyle. The joint venture will market Sevcon products in China targeting on-road applications. And since just about every vehicle producer in China is at least saying it will produce some EVs and the central government is telling local governments to add EVs to fleets, Risenbo could provide Sevcon with an excellent doorway into lucrative markets. Risenbo has mainly served large vehicle makers, says Boyle, but Sevcon’s products are scalable so it is targeting all vehicle segments.
Wisely, given the slowness of Chinese drivers to warm to EVs, Boyle says light commercial vehicles and busses seem to be the best market for its products right now. But, “passenger cars can’t be ruled out,” he says. And the latest EV policy, which ignored hybrids, is also to Sevcon’s advantage. There is no charger on board a hybrid, says Boyle. PHEVs and BEVs do have a charger on board. “If there is a charger on board it will double the revenue for us,” he says.
There are Chinese companies that produce similar products to Sevcon’s, such as Shanghai EDrive Co. Ltd. http://www.chinaedrive.com a company I visited and wrote about last October. Boyle admits that “the challenge in China is our selling prices have to be a modicum lower than in the rest of the world” to compete against local competitors. “Our quality and reputation give us somewhat of an advantage,” he says, “and our partner has a good reputation in China.”
Fortunately Sevcon has been doing contract manufacturing in China for export in a Free Trade Zone in Shanghai’s Pudong district for about 11 years. It won’t have to add capacity to serve the anticipated new domestic business, at least initially, says Boyle.
Companies manufacturing in China often worry about intellectual property protection; Sevcon has had IP issues in the past, says Boyle, but they have been small. “We aren’t unique in the world, but there aren’t that many people doing what we do so it is easy to spot what’s going on,” he says. Also, Sevcon’s customers are all large companies who also have something to lose if something goes on, he adds.
It will take a while to know if Sevcon’s China gamble has paid off. Product cycles in his industry are generally 18 months to three years, says Boyle. And what about all this news that China’s economic growth is slowing to perhaps as low as 7% this year and even lower in the future? “China’s GDP growth still means you are adding an economy the size of Singapore every year,” says Boyle.
Anyone who believes that the Chinese government and other players in the policy-making process have complete agreement on the readiness of China’s domestic companies to produce globally-competitive electric vehicles, or in how to bring them to that level, need only read the diverse commentaries that appear in the Chinese press to know that is not true.
Unlike the past, when debate was hidden behind closed doors and only the official line appeared in public, China’s media world is now filled with vibrant debate on topics so long as those topics don’t threaten the government’s hold on power. The EV industry falls into that category. Saying Chinese companies aren’t globally competitive is unlikely to produce social unrest, and there are plenty of opinions about their readiness on display.
I recently read an excellent blog on that topic posted by Professor Wang Binggang, the team leader of the National Coordinating Office for Clean Vehicle Action (I confess not to know exactly what that is or where it falls in the whole power structure, but it seems to be associated with the 863 plan.) This is the link but for some reason is doesn’t work…. http://wangbinggangauto.sohu.com
Wang argues that China lags the global industry in the quality of its electric vehicles and that the real weakness is in the supply chain. He also draws a comparison with producers of China’s “traditional” i.e. internal combustion engine vehicles, who concentrated on producing the vehicle as a whole and thus have to rely on foreign companies for key technologies. Wang makes an excellent point. Is the entire development process in China stymied because of a lack of indigenous innovation or maybe just an unwillingness to take the time to innovate?
But let me start from the beginning. The beginning of Wang’s blog post, that is. He lays out the EV production numbers for 2013, which are dismally low though a big increase on 2012. China produced 17,533 new energy vehicles in 2013, up 39.7 percent on-year. That included 14,243 battery-electric vehicles and 3,290 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. As for sales, in 2013 NEV sales totaled 17,642, up 37.9 percent on-year. That included 14, 604 battery-electric vehicles and 3,038 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Production of regular hybrid vehicles in 2013 was 14,463; sales were 15,101 units. (regular hybrids are not consider “new energy vehicles.”)
It seems China has had some success in the regular old hybrid bus world. It ranks number one worldwide in the number of hybrid buses on the road. China’s hybrid bus technology has reached world levels, Wang says. But hybrid technology is mature technology and in the area of electric vehicle innovation there is a big gap between China and the rest of the world, he says.
Wang traces this lack of innovation back to China’s weakness in tradition vehicle research and development. Indeed, though China’s domestic automakers have been producing cars for decades, those who do not have foreign partners still rely on foreign suppliers for technology such as automatic transmissions (okay, some Chinese OEs claim to have indigenously-developed ATs. But they trail foreign ATs by a long way…). And Chinese automakers who partner with foreign OEs generally rely on the foreign partner for certain complex systems.
This reliance on foreign partners is probably the underlying cause of Wang’s next reason for China’s slowness in developing EV technology: Lack of investment in research and development. Despite the policies to promote electric vehicle development in China, investment has been slow and it lacks good products. So the policies are “empty words,” says Wang.
He then falls back on that recent favorite towering example of how to develop electric vehicle technology: Tesla. www.teslamotors.com “Everyone is talking about Tesla these days,” says Wang. “I really favor this way of thinking. There are lots of things we should study about Tesla.” He indicates that the structure of U.S. society is more likely to produce innovation, so maybe there is a bit of revolutionary thinking here. Hmmm.
The main point is: Elon Musk was able to start an automotive company basically from scratch. Now that Tesla EVs are being sold in China, http://blogs.marketwatch.com/thetell/2014/01/28/tesla-hits-it-big-in-china-on-social-media-at-least/the country’s policy makers seem obsessed with Tesla’s road to success. I read that China is considering allowing non-automotive companies to jump into the EV sector because that could facilitate the rise of a Chinese Tesla. I won’t go into the merits, or lack thereof, of that position. But as one article I read pointed out, non-automotive companies are already jumping into the EV business by buying a shell automotive company.
But I digress. The main point of Wang’s blog is that China should concentrate more on developing the components that go into an EV than on producing the entire EV. “Electric and hybrid vehicle’s most critical technology is in the components,” says Wang. In China, the battery industry is the area where development has occurred most quickly, says Wang. But our battery technology is still not as good as a “great country’s.” Wow, those are fightin’ words. But true. As Wang points out, China’s battery producing companies still have to rely on foreign technology for many aspects in production and testing.
Finally, Wang discusses local protectionism and how that has hindered the development of indigenous EV technology. The latest NEV policy does call for 30 percent of NEV bus purchases by local government to be from a company outside of that area. But local protectionism still exists, says Wang, in the form of technical and permitting requirements that effectively keep all but local brands out of the market.
If local companies don’t face outside competition, they don’t have to innovate, says Wang, and fall farther and farther behind technologically. “We ought to operate according to the principle of equal competition in order to provide development opportunities for competitive local products,” Wang concludes, “thus promoting at the same time the rapid maturation of our new energy vehicle industry and its global competitiveness.” Wow, good stuff. Now let’s see if anyone is listening.