China’s New Car: Plug In, Turn On, Drive Out

by Bill Chameides | December 17th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

BYD Auto’s experience in developing batteries has likely given it the edge to be the first to market with a plug-in hybrid.

Back in the ‘50s, a strange little car from Germany suddenly appeared — the Beetle. No way, we thought, could Germany compete with Detroit. We were wrong. Now here comes a Chinese carmaker with a state-of-the-art green car. Will China be the next Germany on the road?

The F3DM is the new car from China’s BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) Auto. And okay, the F3DM (DM stands for “dual mode”) is not a Tesla: it isn’t 100 percent electric, it doesn’t go 0 to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds, and it’s not a sexy sports car. True, but it also won’t set you back $109K. In fact, the F3DM — which went on sale in China this week (it’s not available yet here) — costs less than $22K.

The F3DM — which has set the blogosphere abuzz — is a sleek, mid-size, 4-door sedan with highway capability, decent acceleration (0 to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds), and amazing fuel efficiency (more details here and here).

It’s a hybrid. So it can run on both its battery-powered electric motor and its 1.0-liter gasoline engine or on the battery alone. Powering off just the battery gives the car a range of about 60 miles with a top speed of about 100 miles per hour. So, the battery is probably all you need for short trips to work and the store. But longer distances are no prob — just switch to gas-electric power. The car reportedly uses 12 kilowatt hours per 60 miles and can travel about 200 miles per charge.

It’s a plug-in. Its lithium-ion iron phosphate battery is fully rechargeable — 8 to 9 hours plugged into a regular 220V socket should juice it up — and is expected to last more than 2,000 cycles or about 10 years.

Not the Only Plug-In Around — But BYD Auto’s Is the First to Market

Of course, China’s BYD Auto isn’t the only automobile company working on a plug-in hybrid.

General Motors has the Chevrolet Volt, and Toyoto and Ford are working on their own plug-ins. However, while BYD’s F3DM is hitting the market now, GM’s and Toyota’s versions won’t be available until 2010 (when BYD is expected to enter the U.S. market), and Ford’s won’t be available for about 5 years. How is it that a Chinese company that didn’t even make cars five years ago got to the plug-in hybrid finish line first?

Before getting into the car business, BYD made batteries — lots of them. BYD controls 65 percent of the world’s market for nickel-cadmium batteries and 30 percent of the lithium-ion cell phone batteries. This is a huge advantage as battery development has been the sticking point in hybrid and plug-in development. These cars need lightweight, compact, rechargeable batteries that can store lots of power. And so BYD’s expertise in batteries allowed them to “leapfrog the traditional technologies,” and go straight to the next generation of cars.

China’s Plug-In Car: The Wave of the Future?

Will the F3DM measure up to its hype? We’ll have to wait and see. But the release of the F3DM is an exemplar of Tom Friedman’s notion that the “world is flat.” America’s historical position as an economic powerhouse no longer guarantees such a position of prominence in the 21st century.

Many economists agree that green technologies will be the wave of the new century. If the United States does not move aggressively into this area, others like the Chinese will happily fill the vacuum. (BYD Auto has secured a spot on the main show floor at next month’s big auto show in Detroit while name brands like Nissan and Infiniti have pulled out.) Either way, the world will get the new technologies it needs; the question is will America lead or follow? This is a question the new administration is no doubt pondering. Will a Detroit bailout be part of the solution or will it be Chapter 9? We should know soon.

Oh, in case you were wondering. BYD Auto is planning to send the F3DM to American showrooms soon. You could be the first on your block to drive China’s answer to air pollution and global warming — the world’s first commercially available plug-in hybrid.

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  1. Leo
    Dec 19, 2008

    Thanks for the detail on the 1 liter engine, and 12 kw/60 miles. At our national avg. of 8.5 cents/kwh, that works out to 1.7 cents/mile . Right now, we are looking at a new market that has no US players: BYD from Shenzen, the Mini from BMW Bavaria; and the Think Car from Norge. Connect the dots. Detroit is dinosaur-land. Even with its available hybrids, the NYT has noted – in a piece marking 10 years since the first introduction of hybrids to the US by the Japanese – that the batteries used by Ford have been the only manufacturer needing a major recall, and that the Big 3 hybrids all have a significantly higher replacement cost than do the Honda and Toyota . It should be clear that Buffett never invested in a US auto company , and is generally tech adverse, and for good reason. But he probably understands that the Li-ion technology is the key to the future, as does Andy Grove and others now urging concerted action by US corps. BUT .. PHEV or not, we still need to be looking at all electric cars, such as the Norsk Think Car, if we want to get to true Zero Pollution Vehicles. It has the range , and the maximum speed that is ideal for US driving ( unlike the BMW Mini that is designed for autobahn /motorway speeds of western Europe) Its price – as an electric only car – is also lower than the F3DM of BYD. ” title=”BYD car vs. BMW Mini vs Norsk Think Car

    • erica
      Jan 5, 2009

      Dr. CHAMEIDES replies: Leo – Thanks for the thoughtful post. All electric cars certainly represent a major step forward, but: 1. It is not clear to me that electric cars will ever be able to replace internal combustion engines for long trips. Just does not look like the storage/energy density in batteries will be adequate any time soon; and 2. Be careful when you refer to all electric cars as “Zero Pollution Vehicles.” As long as fossil fuels are used to generate electricity and/or manufacture the cars, they will not be zero emitters.” title=”A Major Step Forward but …

  2. Daniel Wedgewood
    Dec 18, 2008

    Dr. Chameides, I have owned and driven a Toyota Prius for the last 3 years – I don’t have any regrets from my old gasoline-only driving days. I’ve had no problems to speak of with the car, and my gas savings have helped to inspire 3 other co-workers to buy a Prius since then. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a new F3DM made in China. The option to go almost completely electric is very appealing to me. I would note that since my electricity has been out for the last 7 days because of our recent ice storm here in New Hampshire, an electric only car wouldn’t have been of much use – hybrids seem the best choice for those of us who can lose electricity due to natural disasters (it happens once or twice a year around here). About 6 years ago, in my blissful ignorance of climate issues, I bought a silver BMW Z3. The first day I drove the car home I was punished by having our (new) baby goats use the hood of my brand new BMW as a playpen. They promptly jumped up on it and danced around for a few minutes until I spotted them from my kitchen. As I ran out the door they jumped off and ran out to our back field – to fast for me to catch. It took a few hundred dollars to remove the goat hoof marks from that new silver hood. I believe that was the day I first developed hypertension. By the way, I have had no goat issues with my Prius… Think I should send a question to China’s BYD Auto and ask if they expect any animal “issues” from ownership of their new car? Dan” title=”Goats and hybrids

  3. Jason Kasparek
    Dec 18, 2008

    As a new paper recently posted in the Nicholas School News points out, plug-ins really don’t reduce GHG emissions unless they are powered by clean energy grids. In many places in the US (and certainly in China), the power grid is primarily coal. So is switching from a gasoline-powered vehicle to a coal-powered vehicle ultiamtely any better for the environment? ” title=”Doesn’t a dirty grid result in dirty plug-ins?

    • wendy
      Dec 18, 2008

      Dr. Chameides responds – Jason – You are right, it depends in large part on the grid. But things, even grids change. Clean electricity buys clean plug-ins. ” title=”A good point

    • Jim McKirdy
      Feb 20, 2009

      The use of a electric DC motor for driving needs is 75% better for the air we breath. The best example of this is a electric car has no exahust pipe. All solar electric panels are also DC. I can see the near future where electric cars will by the future of the world’s tranportation need. But as I am commenting on electric cars there is a huge need to eliminate fuel from our lives. Don’t drill for oil, Renewable Energy will replace fuel fast. China is replacing fuel with solar at the power plant level and using hydro electric power plants. There is a new type of hydro power plant in the future where you do not need the expensive dam. These new type of hydro electic generators replace the need to build dams. ” title=”Dirty Grid

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