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China and the Electric Car

By Althea Chang
Chinese automakers may be ramping up their research, development and production of electric vehicles just in time to challenge U.S. automakers in their own market.

Although thundering trucks and SUVs still crowd U.S. highways and parking lots, Americans are gradually turning to smaller, often hybrid, cars for fuel efficiency and lower environmental emissions. Even billionaire investor Warren Buffett is betting on the market for more fuel efficient and electric vehicles, including those made in China.

The Promise
China announced new efforts early this month to become one of the world’s top manufacturers of hybrid and electric cars within the next three years, which could mean a significant challenge to the electric car efforts undertaken by struggling U.S. automakers such as Ford (Stock Quote: F) and General Motors (Stock Quote: GM). 

BYD Electronic, a Chinese cell phone battery maker which supplies batteries to cell phone producer Nokia (Stock Quote: NOK), plans to be one of the top electric car producers. This has caught Buffett’s attention—and his money. 

Last fall, Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings unit of Berkshire Hathaway (Stock Quote: BRK.A) paid $230 million for a 10% stake in  BYD Auto (short for “build your dreams”), based in Shenzhen, China.

BYD’s all-electric E6 automobile debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in January and it’s expected to enter the U.S. market in 2011, along with a plug-in hybrid model, the F6DM.

In addition, Nissan (Stock Quote: NSANY) and its French partner Renault signed an agreement with the Chinese government to develop electric cars and a network of battery charging stations in Wuhan, China.  A lack of recharging infrastructure, combined with easy access to gas stations, is one of the major factors preventing widespread use of electric vehicles.

The Chinese-made two-person Flybo XFD-6000ZK closely resembles the Smart Fortwo developed by Smart, a unit of Daimler AG (Stock Quote: DAI), and is already being sold in the United States.

Plugging In
BYD’s all-electric E6 mid-sized vehicle can run for 250 miles on a single charge and tops out at 100 miles per hour. The company’s F3DM model, which can travel up to 60 miles on its lithium ion battery alone, is a gas-electric hybrid which runs on electricity to 37 miles per hour, then switches to a gas engine when you accelerate beyond that.

Unlike the more popular gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius (Stock Quote: TM) currently on the market, you can charge the F3's battery from an ordinary wall socket, so you won’t need to find a charging station or set one up at home, which was the case in the mid- to late-1990s with GM’s EV1 electric vehicle.

A major downside to the electric cars in the works is the number of hours it takes to charge the cars.  According to BYD, which says that charging its F3's battery costs 75% less than filling up a gasoline-powered car, charging the vehicle could take about nine hours. 

Even worse, the two-person Flybo XFD-6000ZK from Jinan Flybo Motor in Jinan, China, would take about ten hours to charge.

Although it might be possible to charge the car as soon as you get home and have it finished when you leave the house in the morning, charging time may be a major deterrent for consumers looking for an environmentally-friendly car that’s convenient as well. 

Although the price of electric and hybrid electric vehicles in the works are yet to be determined, the cost of production plus the cost of batteries themselves could be signifigantly more expensive than a small gasoline-powered car.

But as with computers and cell phones, as the technology develops and batteries improve, electric cars will have more of a chance in the U.S., regardless of where they come from

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