Unless I’m mistaken there are very few automakers right now who aren’t worried about the future. While most are faced with an uncertain future and desperately try to balance their accounts a rarer breed of Automaker exists. They’re not clamoring for Federal tax breaks and they’re not visiting the President to ask for more money. The workers for these automakers aren’t on strike. They’re not asking the Prime Minister for more wages, or moaning about outsourcing. And they don’t have showrooms full of vehicles the sales team just can’t shift. Granted, they don’t have many rights as workers and their government would probably balk at the idea of worker representatives or a union.
One particular company comes to mind when reading that description. While perhaps off the radar of many consumers, this company has the likes of GM, Ford, and Toyota fully in it’s sights. They already produce a fully road-working, commercially available plug in hyrbid, capable of as much as 40 miles on all electric power. And they sell at a cheaper price than the current Toyota Prius. Who is this mystery company? The company who Warren Buffet was so impressed by that his company invested a reported $232m in? Why, the Chinese company BYD.
BYD’s E6 electric car. Photograph by http://www.gist.org
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I know a lot of people at this point are going to start making assumptions about Chinese quality and the western world. But let’s be honest, GM are in deep water. Only yesterday, GM, the American mother company of Vauxhall Opel has announced that they may have to cut the European brands loose from GM’s apron-strings and make them go-it-alone. Or in other words, go bust. GM aren’t alone. I don’t know of any traditional American car companies who are feeling much happier. In Europe we’re not much better off; and the UK doesn’t even HAVE a car industry to speak of any more. Even the mighty Japanese Toyota Motor Company, who have of course become ubiquitous with hybrid cars, are struggling to keep the balance sheets looking healthy. Forget the Volt. Forget the new plug in Prius. Forget the over-hyped vaporware cars. What about a car company who are actually producing the technology we’re all being told is a few years away in vehicles you can buy and drive today (if you’re a wealthy Chinese national, that is).
For those of us in the Western world (as much as I hate that term I think in this situation it’s probably the most appropriate one to use), China and Chinese-made goods conjure up the image of poorly-made products which break after a few months. Products which are made by underpaid workers in what some see as little more than forced slave labor under the iron fist of a communist regime. Historically that was certainly the case. I’ve owned many Chinese-made products over the years and, looking back more than ten years or so, many were shoddy. They were either cheap facsimiles of products which cost twice as much as the European originals (think of the smart car electric look-a-likes you so often see on ebay), failed to work correctly, or were over-priced and dangerous.
That has changed though. Looking at Chinese made batteries, I’ve owned both 2003 and 2007 batches of lithium ion (and lithium cobalt) Thundersky batteries . The manufacture date made a huge difference in the performance, reliability and longevity of these batteries when used in my 1998 City El . In that short period of time the improvements in design, quality and engineering of the batteries were huge.
Let’s look at a different example, one which comes from a different sphere of my life; Music. In my day job as a professional oboist and music teacher, I encounter many different makes and types of instrument. A few years ago I would never have dreamt of recommending a student purchase a Chinese-made instrument, yet alone buying three. A local company to me has designed a whole range of beginner and intermediate instruments which are then manufactured in China. Initially the quality of the early instruments weren’t that of say, a European brand. However, as time has gone on the instruments leaving Chinese factories have got better and better. So much so that I actually traded a £460 Saxophone in for a £250 Chinese made one as the sound and build quality of the cheaper instrument was streets ahead of it’s more expensive rival.
If the Chinese can do this kind of mass manufacture with musical instruments and lithium ion batteries then perhaps they deserve to be at the forefront of our green EV and PHEV revolution. After all, with the largest population of the world China is hardly short of a workforce. Much as it pains me to say this, the communist party’s stake in each business (I’ve been told it’s always 1% more than the private shareholders) means funding shouldn’t be an issue either. I’m not a fan of communism either. I know there are parts of China where the “free market” is still a pipe dream. I also know that only certain provinces are benefiting from the more relaxed form of almost capitalist communism (an oxymoron perhaps in normal circles?) – but perhaps this will spread.
I’m no political pundit, so I’ll stop making gross generalisations now. China has her issues. Just like any other country. She also is responsible for some terrible acts against her people. I’ll not deny that. But, underneath all of this lies a gargantuan machines, churning out technology on a daily basis which creeps, ever faster, towards what the likes of America can push out. In fact, one could argue that in the world of the plug in Hybrid, China are streets ahead.
Sure, China also is quickly becoming the world’s fastest polluter. But examine the number of electric cars, bicycles and scooters being manufactured in China today (not to mention the many hundreds of battery tech products) and you can quickly see what I mean.
China is coming, and it the auto industry had better be ready. Unless GM, Toyota, and Ford can pull some serious magic then In ten years time, we’ll all be driving china’s latest green electric vehicles and a new world order in the auto industry will be playing out. What will you be driving?