Electric cars

China already the clear powerhouse in electric cars

Chinese manufacturers account for less than half of market share in China, the world’s biggest, but on electric vehicles domestic companies have an almost 90pc market share

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 1:30pm

Electric car sales in the US are set to rise nearly 30 per cent in 2017, according to Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, calling it “a notably good year” for the country’s sellers.

But the raw number of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid cars sold still won’t top 200,000, which represents barely more than 1 per cent of the total 17 million cars and light trucks sold.

“There’s been a lot of publicity, but on the demand front, nothing has moved the needle much,” said Haig Stoddard, industry analyst at WardsAuto.

In fact, a mix of hype and publicity about future products is what marked 2017 on the electric car front, along with the realisation that carmakers around the world are particularly under pressure from a burgeoning electric car industry in China, the world’s biggest car market.

Chinese manufacturers account for less than 50 per cent of market share in China, with American, European, Korean and Japanese companies making up the rest.

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“But on electric vehicles, China companies have almost 90 per cent market share,” said Mark Wakefield, managing director in Detroit at AlixPartners, a leading US consulting firm.

In actual numbers of cars, China is the clear powerhouse in electric so far, with more than half the world market of about 1 million cars and light trucks, as the Chinese government does everything it can to maintain leadership in the next generations of automotive technology.

“It’s very clear that China wants to win this,” said Wakefield.

“And the risk is, if you’re not taking part in that you’re going to get leapfrogged. … If you can win in the EV market in China, you’re in a good position in other markets.”

Chinese companies are preparing to export electric cars to the US and Europe – or to build car plants in Western markets.

Chinese electric vehicle start-up Iconiq Motors, for example, said this month it plans to start production in 2019 of a few thousand of its seven-seater Iconiq 7 car, becoming the latest maker to say it is joining global and domestic rivals in pursuit of the government’s goal to have five million new-energy vehicles on the roads by 2020.

The first Chinese vehicle to actually make a splash in the US, however, is likely to be a luxury, technology-packed SUV from Lynk & Co, a new brand created by Volvo and Volvo’s Chinese parent, Geely.

The Lynk Model 01 went on sale last month in China. It’s expected to hit US dealerships in 2019.

And Chinese capital is behind niche electric carmakers in the US, including Lucid Motors, Faraday Future and SF Motors, all based in California.

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The most notable all-American domestic success has been the Chevy Bolt EV, the US$37,000 base-price hatchback that technically was introduced in December 2016. It has drawn great reviews and is selling at a respectable, though not eye-popping, rate of 2,000 to 3,000 cars a month.

Also notable for 2017 is the slow-motion introduction of the Tesla Model 3, starting in July.

Tesla was supposed to be filling thousands of orders a week for the electric four-door saloon by now but has been delayed by serious manufacturing problems at its Fremont, Calif., assembly plant and at its Nevada battery factory. So far, only a few hundred have been reported sold.

Tesla issues sales results by quarter – not by month like the rest of the auto industry – and is due for an update next week.

Nissan also unveiled a new version of its all-electric Leaf in 2017, improving its looks and expanding miles between charges to 150 from the previous model’s 107.

Otherwise, future plans dominated electric car news, as manufacturers touted their aggressive moves into “electrification”.

Volkswagen announced it will put 50 all-electric models on the market by 2025 and 30 plug-in hybrids, which travel a few dozen miles on batteries alone until a combustion engine takes over.

Audi said a third of its sales will be all-electric or plug-in hybrid by 2025. Renault-Nissan said it plans 12 new all-electric models by 2022.

But most carmakers couch their electric-car promises with the nebulous phrase “electrified”.

Mercedes-Benz said it will have electrified versions of each of its models by 2022. Jaguar promised the same. BMW pledged 25 “electrified” cars by 2025, 12 of them all-electric.

“Electrified” is more a marketing slogan than anything else. It encompasses not just plug-in cars but traditional hybrids that run mostly on internal combustion engines.

It can also include “mild hybrid” cars that improve on decades-old 12-volt car batteries with 48-volt versions that match with a small motor to give a petrol or diesel engine an occasional boost and save a bit of fuel. No one in the industry would call that an electric car.

In 2018, only a few all-electric models are expected to hit the market. They include the Jaguar I-Pace luxury SUV and the Porsche Mission E sports car. They’ll be closely watched and important to those manufacturers but won’t move the needle much on electric car volume.

The only car that could do that is the Tesla Model 3, if it fulfils its promise to make and ship hundreds of thousands of cars a year. The company says that more than 400,000 customers have placed refundable deposits for a Model 3.

Although mass-market demand for electric cars and plug-in hybrids remains questionable, all major carmakers are spending millions of dollars to develop them, driven mainly by government regulations and incentives favouring electric vehicles and, eventually, possible bans on the sale of internal combustion engines in parts of China, Europe, and even California, where legislators plan to introduce a bill banning sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.