The race for China's electric car

The race for China's electric car

In China, as it is globally, electric vehicles enjoy a technology-focused buzz.

  • min read


The race for China's electric car

With the Chinese government announcing that it wants to become the world's largest producer of electric cars in the next three years, some of the smartest minds in business—including Warren Buffet, the management teams of global majors like BMW and Toyota, and leading Chinese auto manufacturers like Chery Automobile and Geely Automobile—believe that the market for electric vehicles in China is about to take off. Yet, most manufacturers chasing this market don't fully understand who the customer really is.
In China, as it is globally, electric vehicles enjoy a buzz but it is focused on technology—or more precisely, the travails of technology, such as the limited range of electric vehicles, the long recharging times and the high battery cost. So far, manufacturers were able to relegate issues such as pricing and customer preference to the back seat. Now, with product launches lined up, the battle has shifted to the marketplace: the customer's needs and wishes can no longer be ignored. It's one thing for the Chinese government to announce that it wants China to manufacture 500,000 electric vehicles a year by 2011—it's another thing to understand who will buy those vehicles. Auto manufactures realize they have to urgently address two critical questions. One, how big is the demand for electric vehicles in urban China? Two, what do these customers really look like?
The first question is easier to answer. Close to becoming the world's largest auto market, China will also have a substantial share of the global electric-vehicle market. According to Bain estimates, electric vehicles' sales could be upwards of 1.5 million world-wide if the vehicles are priced at around 10,000 euros (approximately 100,000 yuan)-of which, almost 200,000 could come from China alone. By 2010, the Chinese government plans to have nearly 10,000 hybrid, electric and fuel-cell vehicles on the road. The country's largest electric power company, the State Grid Corporation of China, is already setting up charging stations in larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
On the supply side, domestic and multinational auto manufacturers are scrambling to launch new electric vehicles. Chery just unveiled its first plug-in hybrid the S18, while BYD Company—backed by billionaire Warren Buffet—plans to launch a fully electric crossover, the e6 in the next few months. Global majors such as BMW, Daimler and Toyota have also announced their intention to enter the field. Judging by the media announcements, by next year, there will be one new electric-vehicle model launched in China, every month.

The second question is much more complex as the demand for electric vehicles is likely to come from several different types of customers. Bain's global market research of more than 4,000 urban car-owners from Europe's four largest markets—the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea—reveals that globally, demand for electric vehicles falls into four buckets. The people most likely to shop for electric vehicles are mainly premium customers—early adopters who are willing to pay a higher price to buy and own these vehicles in return for "eco-prestige." Bain estimates there are currently about 350,000 such premium customers world-wide who are willing to buy an electric vehicle even if it's priced around 20,000 euro (or approximately 200,000 yuan). The remaining potential customers are distributed, depending on the country, among consumers who are eco-friendly "green innovators," budget-conscious "cost-shoppers" and risk-averse "laggards."

China stands apart though: the survey reveals this is one country where auto consumers buck global trends. Here, cost-shoppers represent the main potential buyer for electric vehicles, unlike mature markets such as Germany and the USA where premium buyers are likely to be the first buyers of electric vehicles. In China, the most likely consumer of electric vehicles is motivated by cost considerations of owning and running an electric vehicle—rather than any altruistic desire to be environmentally careful or, to be a trendsetter. Bain estimates that the core group of cost-shoppers could account for as much as 60% of all electric-vehicle sales in China—while premium shoppers are likely to be less than 5%.
For any company hoping to do well in the Chinese electric-vehicle market, getting the economics right is going to be critical. Cost-shoppers base their buying decision on money: they worry about the price they pay to buy the vehicle and the total cost of ownership. In other words, these customers are highly price sensitive. After running several scenarios, Bain found that the price likely to attract the most cost-shoppers in China is 100,000 yuan: at that price, sales of up to 200,000 electric vehicles are possible over time.
The company that is more likely to succeed in China will not necessarily be the one that is first off the mark, but the one that avoids the pitfalls. On the one hand, domestic manufacturers might find they have a distinct edge in developing electric vehicles for the local market. They already have substantial experience in developing low-cost automobiles for the mass market and are well-positioned to achieve economies of scale quickly. On the other hand, Chinese electric-vehicle manufacturers can expect to face competition globally—and domestically—from well-established global brands. The Bain survey revealed that in China as well as in Europe, German automobile manufacturers have the strongest brand position in electric vehicles, while Chinese brands rank lower, closer to Japanese and Korean brands.
While global brands enjoy high credibility in China, currently, these manufacturers are focused on developing electric vehicles that target premium consumers across the world. To penetrate China's electric-vehicle market, multinational players will have to develop a low-priced model exclusively for Chinese cost-shoppers. That, in turn, will mean setting up a new supply chain—preferably in China—to manufacture vehicles economically. Despite the challenges, few domestic and multinational players can afford to ignore China's electric-vehicle market. As China rushes to expand the network of charging stations for electric vehicles across its largest cities, more and more urban consumers will be tempted to switch to a low-cost, easy-to-run, environment-friendly vehicle. The meteoric growth of the electric-bikes market in China is a salutary example. For the market leader in electric vehicles, there could yet be a premium in targeting China's cost-conscious shoppers.
Marc Lamure is a partner in Bain & Company's Beijing office and leads the firm's Industrial practice in Greater China. Serge Hoffmann is a partner in Bain's Hong Kong office and a leader in the Global Automotive practice. Raymond Tsang is a partner in Bain's Shanghai office and a leader in the firm's Global Industrial Goods and Services practice.

This article was published in FEER and is reprinted with permission.


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