By Julian Wong Apr.28.2008
In: automotive

Small Is Beautiful: A Review of the Beijing Auto Show 2008

After writing my post on China car culture, I just had to check out the Beijing Auto Show show for myself. Green was the theme, and nearly every car maker had a “green car” to boast about, whether it was a hybrid car, plug-in electric, or simple more fuel efficient variety. In most cases however, these “green cars” were nothing more than concept cars, and I wonder what proportion of these will every hit the market. I was irked that none of the informational plaques accompanying each car disclosed information on fuel efficiency. I was greatly impressed by the number of Chinese auto makers, and I’ve been told that the floorspace of this year’s exhibition has doubled to 120,000 square meters over last year’s floorspace (unverified). Symptomatic of the explosion of the Chinese auto industry since China joined the WTO in 2001. This blog piece by Jack Perskowski, CEO of auto-components manufacturer Asimco Technologies, tracks all the recent numbers in the Chinese auto industry.

I would like to talk about some of the green car technologies that I had the pleasure of seeing, and then in my next post, I want to crush all your hopes by telling you that none of this really matters by sharing and critiquing a brief exchange I had with Jack Perkowski himself at a talk I attended that same evening I attended the auto show.

Rising oil and commodity prices are driving the shift towards smaller, more fuel efficient and economical cars, as this piece identifies. My observations at the auto show backed this up. Every Chinese automaker had at least a few makes of mini cars.

Great Wall Goes Mini

In my ignorance of the Chinese auto industry, I had not previously heard of Great Wall Motor Company before, but apparently, they are among the top 3 independent (i.e. no JVs with foreign makers) automakers in China together with Chery and Geely. According to Wikipedia (of course!), Great Wall is “the first privately owned auto company of China listed on the Hong Kong stock market and has obtained HK$1.7 billion of financial investment.” Great Wall has an annual production of 400,00 vehicles, primarily through large-sized sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and crossover SUVs (CUVs). In order to grow market share, however, the company is undertaking a strategy of making more smaller cars in order to conform to changing consumer tastes. I had the chance to see some of these smaller cars.

The GWKULLA (above), not yet available on the market, was unveiled as Great Wall’s latest lightweight electric vehicle driven totally by motor. It can travel 140 km per charge and can travel a maximum speed of 65 kmh. It looks compact and takes 5 to 6 hours to fully charge its lithium ion battery.

The Great Wall Mini SUV (right) is the smallest SUV in China, featuring a 1.3 litre engine, supposedly with all the four wheel drive and other features of an SUV. I was honestly surprised it was an SUV, thinking it to be a rugged-looking version of the GWKULLA. This Mini SUV meets Euro IV emission standards. To put this in perspective, China is only adopting Euro III standards this coming July.

Finally, the GWPERI EV (below), a four-sear all-electric car that uses a permanenet magnet brushless DC motoro and adanced lithium ion batteries was on exhibit. It has a top speed of 130 kmh and can travel up to 180 km on a fully charged battery.

Of course, I have no idea what the exact fuel efficiency of the GWKULLA and Mini SUV are as this information was not disclosed. Nor do I have any idea it any of the above three cars will eventually make it to market.

Build Your Dreams

I hadn’t heard of BYD Auto either. In this case, however, I would probably be forgiven, for BYD Auto did not exist 5 years ago. BYD also stands for “Build Your Dreams”, the company’s mantra. The BYD Company started in 1995 to become one of the world’s leading makers of lithium ion batteries that are commonly found in mobile phones, and went public on the Hong Kong exchange in 2002. It did not get into the auto game until it acquired Shaanxi Qinchuan Auto Company Limited in 2003. It has since sought to capitalize on its competencies in the battery market to focus on building cars with battery-based engine systems, i.e. hybrids and electric vehicles.

At the Beijing auto show, I caught a glimpse of the darling of the F6DM, that made waves at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, as well as the e6, that was making its debut. The superiority of BYD’s cars come from its lithium iron phosphate batteries (or simply known as Fe batteries), which are to be distinguished from the lithium ion batteries that are found in most other electric/hybrid vehicles. The Fe batteries allow for a must quicker recharge, and lasts longer (see this piece that suggests it can last for 2,000 charge cycles) and can be easily recycled.

DM stands for dual mode. The F6DM (above) is an plug-in electric vehicle that incorporates a pure electric driving system and a hybrid electric driving system. Its Fe battery allows for a 50% quick charge in a mere 10 minutes, and can reach a maximum speed of more than 150 kmh. The F6DM will begin production this year, targettng the China market. It may hit the U.S. market in 3 to 5 years according to BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu.

Debuting at the Beijing auto show was the new pure electric e6 (above). It can reach maximum speeds of 160 kmh and its lithium iron phosphate battery can be quick charged to 80% in a mere 15 minutes. BYD claims that the e6 will have a range of 300km, making it the longest range among all pure electric vehicles in the world. According to a Wall Street Journal article:

BYD Auto’s e6 electric vehicle, in part because of its relatively high price and the need to be plugged in relatively frequently to charge the car’s sizable on-board batteries, will initially be more ideal for use as taxis and other feet vehicles. The “feasibility” of the e6 is “very high as a taxi,” Mr. Wang [Chuanfu, chairman of BYD] said.

The e6 will hit the Chinese market in 2009 or 2010, and will be priced at about RMB 200,000 (about US$28,500) while the F6DM at about RMB 150,000 (about US$21,500). Not bad considering the prices of foreign-made hybrids being sold in China, as discussed in my earlier post.

Exciting stuff, but I’m not sold. I’ll tell you why in my next post.

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