Chinese Automaker BYD Enters U.S. Electric Car Race

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GM’s Chevy Volt, which will hit showrooms in November 2010, may be the most anticipated electric car in the US, but there’s yet another competitor on the way: Chinese automaker BYD has affirmed that it will have a range of pure electric and plug-in hybrid models in the American market in 2011.

BYD, short for Build Your Dreams, made the announcement this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit — a month after it began selling the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, the F3DM, in China. Here’s what BYD Chairman and President Wang Chuanfu had to say, via Gasgoo:

By 2011 our electric car would be a proven and mature product after three years of existence in China, while the Volt would just be a year old. Besides, The F3DM will be sold at around $20,000 in the U.S. while price of Volt is not expected to be under $40,000.

The F3DM plug-in can travel up to 62 miles on a charge (compared with 40 miles for the Volt) and has a top speed of 99 miles per hour. Its one-liter gas engine takes over when the battery runs low. Full recharging takes seven hours in a household outlet, or about three at special charging stations. Ten minutes in a BYD outlet quick-charges the battery to 50 percent capacity.

In addition to the F3DM, BYD said its future lineup in the US would include the five-passenger, all-electric crosser e6, which the company says can get 250 miles on a full charge. If that claim is true — and it has its skeptics — that would make BYD battery packs superior to anything currently being delivered or promised by any other automaker. Via auto industry blog Jalopnik:

…the closest anyone has come to offering similar technology is a claim by Chrysler regarding their Dodge Circuit EV. In their press release they state the EV should achieve "zero tailpipe emissions and 150-200 mile driving range" if it comes to production.

BYD is China’s largest manufacturer of rechargeable batteries and the world’s second-largest producer of cell phone batteries. The key to its cars is its lithium iron phosphate battery — or "ferrous oxide" — which BYD has called "inherently safe" because it is more chemically stable than the conventional lithium-ion battery.

In September, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings bought a ten percent stake in BYD for $230 million. He did it for the battery alone. MidAmerican Chairman David Sokol explains, via Reuters:

The only part that played into [the investment decision] was the battery technology…Whether or not [BYD] can manufacture their own cars isn’t that relevant to us because we see their real expertise is in the development of the batteries, the motors, the control systems for that…That’s not to say that they can’t make a nice car, but a lot of people can make a nice car. The breakthrough from our perspective is their battery technology.

There’s little doubt that BYD’s iron battery is potentially game-changing technology. And Reuters reports that the company is open to licensing it to other automakers. As far as getting its own "nice" cars to market, well, BYD has said that it has inked a deal with Clal Industries and Investments to sell its plug-in in Israel in 2010. In addition to its US plans, Reuters reported in October that BYD has ten European distributors lined up.

Mr. Chuanfu, known for making bold, often audacious claims, said in August that BYD would overtake Toyota as the world’s number one carmaker by 2025. He gave the The Wall Street Journal an explanation of sorts this week:

It’s almost hopeless for a latecomer like us to compete with GM and other established auto makers with a century of experience in gasoline engines…With electric vehicles, we’re all at the same starting line.

There is some truth in that. BYD has been making cars for just six years, and it beat GM to market with the first mass-market plug-in hybrid on the back of a battery breakthrough. If anything, that’s just more proof that China is positioning itself as a growing power in the clean energy technologies that will one day fuel the world economy.