BEIJING — If global automakers think they can extend their dominance in China into the electric era, they may be in for a shock.
Kings of the combustion age such as General Motors and Volkswagen Group are falling behind local players in the booming electric vehicle market in China, a country that’s key to funding and developing their electric and autonomous ambitions.
For Beijing office worker Tianna Cheng, the main dilemma when she was buying a 180,000-yuan ($27,000) Xpeng electric crossover was whether she should go for a BYD car instead, or a Nio; she did not seriously consider overseas marques.
“If I was buying a gasoline car, I may have considered foreign brands,” the 29-year-old said as she drove home from work. “But I wanted an EV, and other than Tesla, I saw few foreign brands applying advanced smart technology properly.”
Buoyed by demand from consumers like Cheng, electric car sales are rocketing in China’s roughly $500 billion auto market, the world’s biggest.
In the first four months of 2022, the number of new-energy passenger vehicles — pure EVs and plug-in hybrids — more than doubled from a year earlier to 1.49 million, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
The cleaner technologies accounted for 23 percent of China’s passenger car market, where overall vehicle sales fell 12 percent, reflecting a steep decline in demand for gasoline powered vehicles.
There are no foreign brands among the top 10 automakers in the new-energy vehicle segment this year, with the notable exception of U.S. electric pioneer Tesla Inc. in third place, according to China Passenger Car Association data.
All the rest are Chinese brands, from BYD and Wuling to Chery and Xpeng. China leader BYD has sold about 390,000 EVs in the country this year, more than three times as many as global leader Tesla sold there. The top-ranked traditional carmaker is Volkswagen’s venture with FAW Group, in 15th place for EV sales.
Cheng said that overseas marques, whether the Buick Velite 7 or Volkswagen’s ID. series, failed to provide what she was looking for: an EV capable of giving her the “comfort” of having a smartphone-like experience in her vehicle.
“Foreign brands are so far from my life and lifestyle,” said Cheng, whose digital assistant handles connections to apps such as Alipay and Taobao and “does everything for me from opening the windows to turning on music”, while her car software provides over-the-air updates.
It’s quite a reversal.
Global brands have dominated in China since the 1990s, typically winning a collective 60-70 percent share of passenger car sales in recent years. In the first four months of 2022 they captured 52 percent, with their April monthly share at 43 percent.
Signaling the scale of the challenge facing traditional automakers, Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida told Reuters that some brands “could disappear in three to five years” in China.
“Local brands are becoming stronger,” said Uchida, who was formerly Nissan’s China chief, adding that the quality of EVs from Chinese makers had improved rapidly, with advances being made in the space of months.
“There will be a lot of transformation in China and we need to carefully watch the situation,” said the CEO, adding that carmakers had to be nimble in the design, development and launch of new models.
“In those aspects, if we were slow, we would be left behind.”