Carmakers Look East; China's BYD Looks West

Last Updated Sep 24, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

When it comes to business growth, the future belongs to China and India. That's especially true in the auto industry, where the established domestic markets in the U.S., Asia and Europe are stagnant or declining, but China and India are experiencing record growth.

The market for electric and plug-in hybrid cars could be abroad, too. It's small wonder that Henrik Fisker, just awarded $528 million in Department of Energy loan funds to build his small Nina hybrid in the U.S., told me this week that a majority of Nina production will be exported (at least initially mostly to Europe).

CSM Worldwide, a consulting firm with a branch in India, told the New York Times that car sales there will grow 45 percent between 2007 and 2011. In the same period, sales in China will grow 39 percent and in Brazil 26 percent. U.S. and European markets are likely to remain depressed through 2011 and beyond.

This week Ford showed off the Figo, a new car built in and for India that nonetheless could find markets elsewhere around the world. Ford is facing facts--its cars and trucks for North America will only be 35 percent of production by 2015 (from 54 percent in 1997). GM has also produced a small car for India, the Spark, and VW and Toyota are there, too.

While in Iceland recently, I interviewed Alex Chu, the Rotterdam-based European representative of Chinese carmaker BYD. According to Chu, BYD sold more than 240,000 cars between January and August, and that makes it the country's second-biggest automaker (after Chery, which is being sued by entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin). BYD's F3 is China's top-selling car.

But BYD, already the biggest maker of batteries for cell phones, is making wave by saying that it will be number one carmaker in China by 2015 and the world's biggest (surpassing Toyota) by 2025. BYD also startled observers by announcing that it would bring its five-seater E6 electric car to the U.S. in 2010, a year ahead of schedule. The $40,000 car has a 250-mile range and fully charges its lithium batteries in seven to nine hours. The first U.S. cars could go to government agencies, utilities and "maybe some celebrities," BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu told the Wall Street Journal.

BYD's one big disappointment is also its greenest car, the F3DM, the world's first plug-in hybrid. As of mid-September, BYD had sold only about 100 through August. The problem is probably a lack of available recharging resources in China. The car is very affordable by U.S., standards, around $20,000, but it is not likely that at the current rate of sales it will reach the 3,000 to 4,000 target for 2009. Here's a video look at the Chinese plug-in hybrid, which despite those slow sales has world carmakers worried: Chu told me the company was taking actively taking a look at bringing cars to Iceland (he spoke at a conference entitled Driving Sustainability '09 on the island) but is waiting to see what kind of plug-in infrastructure Iceland will build, and what kind of incentives its government will offer.