Its release imminent, BYD Auto'srevolutionary E6 electric car is integralto China's plan to dominate the global market for'clean-transport'.
When BYD Auto launches one of China's first mass produced fullyelectric sedans later this year, it will be trying to conquer theworld rather than save it. But such is the explosive growth of China's car market andthirst for petrol that the twogoals are likely to become ever more synonymous.
The E6 plug-in is currently under wrapsat the company's sprawling industrial complex in Shenzhen,but it will soon be at the vanguardof a company's – and a nation's – plans to dominate theglobal market for "clean-transport".
Senior government leaders have initiated amajor push for hybrid and electric vehicles in a bid to bypass car makers overseas and avoid an environmental meltdown at home.
The consultancy McKinsey estimates that China's car market willgrow tenfold between 2005 and 2030, which will drive up demand fordiesel and petrol from 110 million tonnes to 500 million tonnes.That will mean a sharp rise in carbon emissions from a country thathas already overtaken the US as the world's biggest source ofgreenhouse gases.
Hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles could ease the burden, butthey will not solve the problem because at the moment more than 70%of China's electricity is powered by coal, the dirtiest of allfossil fuels. Even if there is alarge scale take up of the newtechnologies, which could cut emissionsby 19%, McKinsey estimates that the combined emissions fromroad transport would still increasemore than fourfold within the next two decades.
Faced by this nightmare, the authorities recently announced plansfor 50,000 yuan rebates forelectric and hybrid cars, encouraged citytaxi fleets to buy vehicles with the new technology, andprompted state and regional grids to set up chargingstations.
BYD is likely to be a majorbeneficiary. The initials stand for Build Your Dreams, whichprompted snickers when the company debuted in US car shows lastyear, as did the soaring ambitions of the founder Wang Chuanfu, whohas stated that BYD will be the biggest carmaker in China by 2015and the biggest in the world by 2025.
Despite it making a third of the world's mobile phone batteries,until recently few people outside of China had heard of BYD. Butthe company exploded into the international consciousness late lastyear by beating Toyota and General Motors to launch the world'sfirst mass-produced plug-in hybrid.
At the company's sprawlingheadquarters in Guangdong province, there is little outward sign that BYD is a world beater. Apart from the golden pillars at the entrance, the company's offices are as grimly utilitarian as any other factory in the workshop of the world.
But style is not the point. The company has built an empire byoffering cheap, high-quality batteries and now it aims to do thesame for cars.
In February, just six years after its was formed, the firm sold28,000 gasoline and diesel cars inChina, more than any foreign or domesticrival. Its 10,000 research engineers have also designed theferrous battery technology of theE6, which will be released before mass-produced electric cars fromHonda and Nissan.
The plug-in five-seater will reportedly be able to travel 400kmon a single charge and reach a topspeed of 160km/h. "We are trying to make an electric car thatpeople can use like a normal car," says Henry Li, the head of BYDAuto's export and trade division, as we drive around the company'scar park in the BYD's other newbreakthrough vehicle, the F3DM.
Like the company, the hybrid startsout so quietly you barely notice it moving. At low speeds,the battery-powered engine makes only a fraction more noise thanthe tyres on the road. But put your foot on the pedal and thevehicle roars to life as the gaskicks in.
Acceleration from 0-60km/h in 10.5 seconds will not win any FormulaOne races. Neither will the hybrid's current sales scarerivals. The company says orders are only in the "several hundred"range, mostly from the Shenzhen local governments and BYD's mainbank.
Analysts are withholding judgmenton whether BYD can achieves its ambitious targets. "BYD'sbattery technology is good and that is important, but cars are morecomplicated than that," says Zhao Junhua of CSM Worldwide inShanghai. "BYD will need more experience. Chinese firms are stillbehind Japanese rivals like Toyota,Honda and Nissan."
There are also many questions about the environmental benefits of electric cars, givenChina's reliance on coal.Electricvehicles drive down carbon emissions best if they are charged atnight with wind or other forms of renewable energy, but this is not currently possible in China.
But they do use energy more efficiently than both petrol and dieseldriven cars, and environment groups says electric vehicles can atleast reduce the huge negativeimpact from the spread of car culture in China.
“"Electric cars would be a big stepforward," said Greenpeace executive director Gerd Leipold ona visit to Beijing this week. "Hybrid cars have a better reputationthan their ecological performance merits."BYD may lead the pack in China, butthe government is encouraging others to move into clean transportmanufacturing – an area where it hopes domestic companies canovertake bigger foreign rivals.
Electrical Vehicles in China