China suppliers are jumping on the opportunity to release hybrid and fully electric vehicles that can perform as well as those made by industry giants.
Taking advantage of the growing demand for all things "green," China car manufacturers are revving up R&D on electric vehicles. In terms of cost and technology, most are on a level playing field with international makers.
A study by the business strategy advisor Boston Consulting Group in 2009 indicated that by 2020, electric and hybrid vehicles will make up 23 percent of new car sales in China, Japan, the US and Western Europe. That translates to roughly 1.5 million electric cars and 11 million hybrid units.
In response, China manufacturers of cars, automotive batteries and electric motorcycles laid out their electric car development plans in late 2009. Now, most of the country's top 30 car companies have similar endeavors. Vehicle producers have teamed up with battery suppliers or international carmakers in coming up with their own versions of hybrid and fully electric units. While many companies have launched in-house models and operate on a small scale, few are exporting. Presently, those that do ship electric and hybrid cars send units to the EU and Singapore.
But since the industry is still in its nascent phase, there is no unifying standard makers can adhere to. Different types of technology are being adopted for the batteries, motors and charging equipment. Even specifications vary.
The emphasis of R&D, however, is on the three key factors that have the most impact on performance: battery, electric drive system and electric control system. Of these, battery development is the most challenging. One of the difficulties is balancing charging time and longevity. At present, electric cars can run 100 to 300km when their batteries are charged fully, a process that normally takes 7 to 8 hours.
Nonetheless, the performance of China-made electric cars is said to be on a par with those produced in developed countries. The F3DM model from BYD Co. Ltd, for instance, has two modes: HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) and EV (electric vehicle). It also comes with a solar panel on the roof. The car can run for 60km in fully electric mode. BYD's e6 model, meanwhile, accelerates within 10 seconds and has a maximum speed of 140kph. The fully electric unit can run for at least 300km on a full charge and its battery can achieve 80 percent capacity on a 15-minute charge.
High battery costs
Regardless of where they are purchased, electric cars are double the cost of traditional fuel-based vehicles. This is due mainly to expensive batteries, which contribute 40 to 50 percent to unit prices. Makers in developed countries such as the US, Japan and Germany, however, are confident their strong R&D capability can lower battery costs by as much as 70 percent over the next 10 years.
Not to be outdone, major carmakers in China are also confident about their green battery and car development plans. PR manager Yang Zhao said BYD's vertically integrated production enables it to keep manufacturing costs low. The company makes batteries and nearly all other car components in-house, and handles the entire process from parts production to final assembly.
Midsize electric carmakers, which started out producing electric motorcycles and batteries, have less competitive R&D teams and could not say when battery costs would go down. Additionally, such manufacturers more often adopt lead acid batteries, which are 50 percent less expensive, instead of the Li-Fe ones incorporated in upscale electric cars.
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