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Chinese electric vehicles, no all EVs, need to be good for reasons beyond not using gas

March 31, 2011
A Zotye electric SUV in Texas at Green Automotive Co.

I recently wrote a blog for about the Zotye all-electric SUV. I was pretty critical of the vehicle. The comments to that posting strengthened a belief I already held: electric vehicle fanatics live in their own little fantasy world. In that world, a car that can’t pass U.S. safety standards, meet U.S. consumer demands for a non-electric car, and possibly not live up  to the manufacturer’s claims, is just fine so long as it doesn’t use any gas. Fortunately, that is not the real world. Chinese automakers need to realize that, too. 

I haven’t  ridden in Zotye’s small SUV, I’ve just seen it in still photos and online. But I have talked with people who are very familiar with it, and they tell me it isn’t ready for the U.S. market.

One person I talked to, several months ago, was Wu Aibing, a Zotye executive who is over here in California working on starting imports. He told me then that Zotye had a lot of work to do before the car was ready for the U.S. market. He expressed the same thoughts to a friend of mine who met him at a dinner a few weeks ago.  Another person familiar with the vehicle said it currently would not pass the side impact test and that the head and tail lights needed to be redesigned, among other issues.

Then, my friend received an email invite to a ride-and-drive of the Zotye electric SUV up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The invite came from someone named Ghyrn Loveness; Rong Yiwen of TZG Partners was cc’ed on the invite message.  (It was cancelled due to rain.)  Neither responded to my email.

So who are these folks? According the TZG Partners website, it is a Shanghai-based investment firm. As for Loveness, according to his Linkedin profile, he is a “technology entrepreneur and scientist in energy and infrastructure.”

He doesn’t seem to have taken a very scientific approach in his evaluation of the Zotye SUV. The invite is filled with inaccuracies large and small. A small inaccuracy: That the Zotye model at the ride and drive is the first in the U.S.  At least one more has been here a while. There is an Facebook video of it driving around a Dallas, TX suburb.  I wrote about Green Automotive, the company that wants to import the SUV, in an earlier blog.  Nine more Zotye SUVs are on the way to the U.S., or are already here, for the purposes of testing. Eight are electric; one is CNG.   

A larger inaccuracy: The invite calls Zotye “the third largest auto-manufacturer in (China) with a little over 50,000 units sold each year.” That would be a surprise to FAW-VW, the actual third-largest manufacturer in China in 2010. According to J.D. Power and Associates, FAW-VW, a joint venture between First Auto Works and Volkswagen, produced more than 882,000 units in 2010.

Zotye sold just fewer than 100,000 units of its own brand in 2010, but only a handful was electric SUVs. And they were “sold” just so Zotye would have the bragging rights, figures an analyst friend in China.

Be patient, I’m getting around to the point of this blog, which is that people need to get a grip where electric vehicles, Chinese or otherwise, are concerned. And that Chinese automakers need to step up their game where EVs are concerned (you’ve heard that from me before).

Readers of my blog defended Zotye’s electric SUV merely because it is electric, even though most hadn’t ridden in or driven it, and had only seen photos of the vehicle. The tone of the comments ranged from virulently nasty to innocuously dumb. Here’s an innocuous example:

“Honestly, does anyone offer the “perfect” all-electric vehicle…I say not. Is this all-electric SUV a place to start towards a greener tomorrow, definitely!”

Actually, people do expect the perfect electric vehicle. Or at least a really good one. And in ways besides fuel economy.

“People aren’t willing compromise on anything,” says Ian Beavis, head of Nielsen Automotive, a division of The Nielsen Company.  “They want anything they can get on their gas  vehicle on an electric vehicle.”

The fact that electric vehicles are priced at a premium makes their quality even more important, says Beavis.   “You have to be the best possible gas vehicle and then have the electric capability,” he says.

Bottom line: People don’t cut regular cars slack on fit and finish quality, or other extras such as accessories. And in the world beyond the EV dreamosphere, they aren’t going to cut electric vehicles that kind of slack, either.

For those who argue that Chinese electric vehicles will be cheaper than the EVs made by western OEs, so people will accept a lower quality, Beavis points out that the main extra cost for electric vehicles involves the battery, and Chinese companies can’t do much about that.  So they will lose their cost advantage. When they start making batteries that are truly robustm that is.

Chinese battery makers might be able to produce batteries at lower prices than non-Chinese competitors right now. But they aren’t that good.  If they make comparable batteries to competitors, the price will rise.

I’ve read many reports and talked to many people who say China’s battery technology is not yet mature. Indeed, Miao Wei, head of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said as much recently at a forum in Beijing.

I don’t have anything against Chinese electric vehicle producers. I’d love for us to have a world free of cars powered by gasoline. And for Chinese brands to be a part of that world. Some may be. But to ignore shortcomings in any electric vehicle just because it is electric is foolish. EVs need to meet the same standards as other cars, and Chinese automakers are having trouble doing that.  They need to step up their game, if they can.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 5:23 pm

    In fairness nowhere seems to have a genuinely practical battery technology at this moment in time, at least not for cars that need driving for more than short distances every day.

    Good article though.

  2. March 31, 2011 6:55 pm

    Range anxiety remains the number one issue for battery technology and the question is whether or not that can ever be overcome. Design, fit and finish, reliability and durability are the challenges yet to be solved by Chinese auto manufacturers. Not to mention U.S. Government regulations. The Chinese industry leaders, assuaged by double-digit growth in their home markets don’t have the will to compete in the Western markets either, fearing our litigious natures and the economic ruination that could result if they should fail. In time, it is inevitable they should arrive on our shores but your article makes it clear they need to be able to compete head to head with product before trying to blaze a trail to the U.S. based solely on battery power.

  3. A.S.Conn permalink
    April 1, 2011 12:19 am

    Alysha – great article. Between your comments and Ian’s observations, coupled with Gartner’s recent research findings, EVs will be swimming against the tide a while longer. Just yesterday I took in a Webinar from Automotive World (UK) titled – “EV Pricing after Government Incentives are Over”. Range anxiety is a minor annoyance that will be overcome. Price premiums and many other EV obstacles such as battery technologies, recharging infrastructure, as they exist today will either have to be fixed or the “E” in “E”Vs will come to stand for a facsimile of a car from the ’50s named after a famous carmaker’s son …

    • April 1, 2011 1:18 am

      Yes, I saw the Gartner study after I posted or I would have thrown in a line from it, as well. But, other studies say EVs will succeed. So it’s still up in the air. I just think that no matter how small or large the market, the cars need to be high-quality. Bill’s comment re: Chinese automakers lacking the will to compete is insightful. When the market growth slows, maybe they will become less lazy.

      • April 2, 2011 3:42 am

        People are kidding themselves if they think Chinese automakers lack the will to compete.

        The problems with Chinese exports are two fold:

        1. The industry isn’t quite developed enough in China to launch “high end” vehicles without joint venture assistance – this is coming soon, at a guess within 5 years

        2. Chinese companies are lousy at branding and marketing, their own market is built on one principle “how cheap is it?” and they don’t yet understand markets where other features affect purchasing decisions. This principle affects their learning curve because they are afraid to engage Western brand consultants etc. simply because they aren’t cheap. The day they overcome this problem, Chinese auto companies will be competing everywhere.

        There’s absolutely no lack of desire in Chinese car companies, just a lack of skills in the short-term.

  4. Allen Gilmer permalink
    April 1, 2011 6:56 pm

    Another great post. With China a hugely growing and less demanding market, why focus on the US at all? The range issue gets solved in the short term with very low price. Would the market adopt a less than perfect EV at a $4k price point for going to work and grocery store? Probably… At $15k? Unlikely. Of course, segways are $4k, and they kind of disprove the point I was trying to make. Hell, just market them by saying hot, barely clad women will want them if they drive EVs. That is a proven winner.

  5. April 2, 2011 10:41 pm

    Yes, Chinese auto brands will be competing everywhere. Someday. But they were gung-ho about coming to the U.S. in the early to mid-2000’s, then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. I am skeptical that they will grasp the concept of spending money to produce a good product, at least in the medium term. But hey, I’m waiting for a sign that I’m wrong.

    • April 3, 2011 3:28 am

      I’d agree with you, if the manufacturers were going to be left to their own devices. But the government has already started to step in (because the 4 biggest auto companies here are State owned) and instructed all JV’s with foreign companies that those companies will now teach the local companies how to brand and build cars based on their previous generation technology – or they can forget about having a future in China.

      And while I think that’s chiefly for the domestic market – building cars that consumers choose when they have money is becoming important in the world’s largest car market, but it also has a huge impact on exports – if it’s designed by Toyota, built in China and branded by Toyota – they may finally have products that reach a much wider market.

  6. April 2, 2011 10:51 pm

    Though scantily clad women are out in Detroit, they are still prevalent at the China auto shows. I will check to see if the women caressing the EVs are more attractive than those fondling ICE cars when I am at the Shanghai show in April. I’m not the best judge of that, however, being straight. Still, it will be an interesting survey. If I can see the cars around all the people. I have to attend on a public day.

    • April 3, 2011 4:12 am

      Yup, I’m not sure scantily clad women will ever go out of fashion at car shows here. I was working with some friends on a brand introduction at Shanghai (which sadly due to delays in import licensing is now going to be Guangzhou instead) and the only thing that they added to my outline plan was “professional models” and the first person to say that was essential was the female co-CEO!

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