The electric vehicle revolution will come from China, not the US

The electric vehicle revolution is coming, but it won’t be driven by the U.S. Instead, China will be at the forefront.

My research on EVs, dating back a decade, convinces me that this global transformation in mobility, from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric ones, will come sooner than later. The shift is already happening in China, which is the world’s largest automobile market, with 23 million cars sold in 2018. As Western countries approach peak car ownership, there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese families that don’t own a car at all – much less two or more.

Many of them are buying electric cars. By 2015, electric vehicle sales in China had surpassed U.S. levels. In 2018, Chinese sales topped 1.1 million cars, more than 55% of all electric vehicles sold in the world, and more than three times as many as Chinese customers had bought two years earlier. U.S. electric vehicle sales that year were just 358,000.

A key element of an electric vehicle’s price is the cost of its batteries – and China already makes more than half of the world’s electric vehicle batteries. Battery prices continue to fall; industry analysts now suggest that within five years it will be cheaper to buy an electric car than a gas- or diesel-powered one.

Forecasts predict the Chinese producing as much as 70% of the world’s electric vehicle batteries by 2021, even as the demand for electric car batteries grows.

Huge government backing

China has a fledgling, but ambitious, automobile industry. It has never been able to match the efficiency and quality of established automakers at making gas-powered vehicles, but electric vehicles are easier to build, giving Chinese firms a new opportunity to compete.

The Chinese government, therefore, has chosen to highlight electric vehicles as one of 10 commercial sectors central to its “Made in China” effort to boost advanced industrial technology. Government efforts include using billions of dollars to subsidize manufacturing of electric vehicles and batteries, and encouraging businesses and consumers to buy them.

The government is also aware that electric vehicles could help solve some of China’s most pressing energy and environmental concerns: Massive air pollution chokes its major cities, national security officials are worried about how much oil the country imports and China is now the nation contributing most to global climate change emissions.

New companies

Scores of Chinese auto-making companies have formed to profit from these subsidies. A major player is BYD, which stands for “Build Your Dreams,” headquartered in Shenzhen. More than a decade ago, billionaire investor Warren Buffett bought about a quarter of the company for US$232 million – a share that is now worth more than $1.5 billion.