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How Chinese company BYD went from battery maker to dominate EV manufacturer


Last year, a Chinese company called BYD overtook Tesla as the top producer of electric vehicles in the world. Our colleagues over at The Indicator from Planet Money, Darian Woods and Paddy Hirsch, explain what BYD's rise tells us about the Chinese car industry.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: In Australia last year, Aaron McDonald (ph) was looking to go electric. He wanted a Tesla, but they were a little past his family's budget.

AARON MCDONALD: There's not a huge amount of electric cars in our price range and for our needs available here in Perth.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Aaron road-tested a cheaper, unfamiliar Chinese car brand, BYD.

MCDONALD: I'd never heard of this brand. I was concerned about their ability to service or make a good-quality car.

WOODS: The car he test-drove was the ATTO 3. He read about the company's track record and that it had partnered to make a wide network of servicing dealers across Australia.

HIRSCH: So Aaron and his wife thought the EV was reliable enough and at a good price point, so they bought it. Elliot Richards is the China correspondent for the Fully Charged Show, which is a YouTube channel all about electric vehicles. And Elliot says you can think of BYD as the Toyota of EVs.

ELLIOT RICHARDS: So they're offering, you know, those smaller EVs at reasonable price points. And they're really filling in that gap.

WOODS: And to understand how BYD can offer these reliable, simple EVs at competitive prices, it helps to know a little about its founder, Wang Chuanfu. In the mid-1990s, Wang Chuanfu was a chemistry researcher, and he started BYD as a battery company.

HIRSCH: Wang Chuanfu is known for having this intense work ethic and an acute attention to detail. And clearly, being one of the world's top battery makers, wasn't enough of a challenge for him because in 2003, he decided to acquire a state-owned car company. And after experimenting with conventional engines, Wang Chuanfu and his company were determined to make a world-beating electric vehicle.

RICHARDS: They thought, well, we're not masters at making petrol engines. The Germans, the Japanese do that much better than us. They've been doing it for a hundred years. We're never really going to catch them up. So they started developing their own technology in batteries and electric motors.

WOODS: BYD not only makes its own lithium car batteries, but it owns its own lithium mines. And this helps the company make cheaper, reliable batteries.

RICHARDS: BYD's still learning a lot. They're learning so quickly on how to adapt their cars for a Western audience or an overseas market.

WOODS: Because of what BYD offers, which is a car that gets you from A to B at a reasonable price, below Tesla, they are taking off from Perth to Paris.

HIRSCH: One location they're not selling their cars, though? The United States. Craig Trudell is the global automotive editor for Bloomberg News.

CRAIG TRUDELL: The reason Americans don't see BYDs on the roads in the U.S. is because Washington is really concerned about China basically repeating what we've seen over decades, with Japan entering the market, and Korea after that.

WOODS: BYD electric buses are sold in the U.S., but their cars are a whole other story because in 2018, Donald Trump announced a 25% tax on Chinese cars.

HIRSCH: So what about some kind of workaround to bring BYD cars to the U.S., like, I don't know, setting up a factory in Mexico or doing a joint venture with an American company? Craig is skeptical that will be happening anytime soon.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

HIRSCH: Paddy Hirsch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paddy Hirsch
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.