Chinese Electric Car Jolts The Competition

Visitors view an F3DM electric vehicle at the 2008 China High-Tech Fair on Oct. 14, 2008. i i

hide captionVisitors view an F3DM electric vehicle at the 2008 China High-Tech Fair on Oct. 14, 2008, in Shenzhen.

China Photos/Getty Images
Visitors view an F3DM electric vehicle at the 2008 China High-Tech Fair on Oct. 14, 2008.

Visitors view an F3DM electric vehicle at the 2008 China High-Tech Fair on Oct. 14, 2008, in Shenzhen.

China Photos/Getty Images
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hide captionThe presentations were pared down this year at the Detroit auto show, but not everyone was ready to give up the glitz.

Practicality Almost Reigns
Stephen McGee for NPR

One of the carmakers showing off its electric power at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit is from China. The Shenzhen-based company BYD — which stands for Build Your Dreams — has built the world's first mass-produced, plug-in hybrid car, beating both Chevrolet and Toyota to the punch.

The midsize sedan is called the F3DM. The car has a gasoline engine that kicks in when a driver accelerates to more than 37 mph; up to that point, it runs completely on electricity.

The F3DM produces 160 to 180 horsepower and can travel up to 60 miles just on its lithium ion battery, after which it relies on the small gas engine. BYD claims that charging the F3's battery costs 75 percent less than filling up a gasoline-powered car.

Unlike the Toyota Prius, you can charge the F3's battery from an ordinary wall socket. The problem is that it takes nine hours. Henry Li, who is in charge of BYD's automotive exports, says BYD is working with electricity companies to set up charging stations where motorists could charge a battery half-full in 10 minutes.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," he says. "Do you set up the charging stations first, or do you make the cars first? That's why we decided to make a plug-in hybrid car that is not reliant on charging stations, and when the battery runs out, you still have the gas engine."

Enter Warren Buffett

Metallurgist Wang Chuanfu founded BYD in 1995 and quickly built it into one of the world's top producers of batteries for cell phones and laptop computers.

Wang impressed investor Warren Buffett. In September, one of Buffet's companies purchased a 10 percent stake in BYD for $230 million.

Independent auto industry analyst Jia Xinguang explains how this might work: "Buffett has a company called MidAmerican Energy. They made the investment in BYD. They also have an electricity grid in the American Midwest. So that's the cooperation: BYD builds the cars, and MidAmerican Energy builds the charging stations."

MidAmerican Energy declined to be interviewed for this report.

Coming To America

BYD is still a couple of years from rolling out its cars in the United States. Li says his company is working hard on building its cars to suit American drivers' tastes.

"BYD's information technology division has been in business in the U.S. for 10 years. We understand Americans' concerns about safety and quality. So in designing this car for the U.S. market, we will certainly meet these requirements," he says.

For now, BYD will focus on China's domestic market. Priced at about $22,000 each, the cars are a bit pricey for average consumers, so BYD will first aim at government and corporate buyers. Jia says it will take time for the new technology to win acceptance.

From an environmental standpoint, electric cars are not yet as green as they could be. That's because most electricity is generated by burning coal. But BYD is working on that, too. It's in the early stages of researching electric cars powered by solar energy.

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