Monday, September 21, 2009

How Many Hybrids has BYD Sold?

Last December, Shenzhen-headquartered BYD Corp. announced the launch of the F3DM plug-in hybrid sedan. BYD's gasoline version F3 is basically a Toyota Corolla lookalike that was the highest selling sedan in all of China during the first eight months of 2009. The F3DM is a plug-in hybrid of the same model. ("DM" stands for "dual mode", meaning that the car has two ways of charging its battery: through the on-board gasoline engine -- like a Prius -- or by simply plugging into an electrical outlet.)

Those who haven't been hiding in a cave (or watching America rearrange the deck chairs on its Titanic health care system 24/7), will also be aware that BYD's li-ion battery technology has attracted the attention -- and the money -- of Warren Buffet. Mid-America Energy, a subsidiary of Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway empire has invested about $230 million to buy 9.9 percent of BYD's Hong Kong traded shares.

Given the fact that BYD is the first company in the world to launch a production plug-in hybrid last December, how many F3DMs might BYD have sold by now? 1,000? 10,000? Nope. Apparently they only managed to sell 100 during the first eight months of 2009.

The initial idea was that BYD was going to sell thousands of F3DMs to government and corporate fleets before opening up sales to individuals in July of 2009. Apparently not even the fleet sales attracted much interest.

Having previously expressed my skepticism about the readiness of both the technology and of China's consumers to pay extra for fuel efficiency, I am not surprised by the poor sales -- though I would have expected at least a few thousand to have been sold by now. I think BYD had higher expectations as well.

None of this means that BYD's technology is not ready for prime time (though I still have yet to see public evidence that anyone has road tested the F3DM with the air conditioner running). What it does mean is that Chinese drivers are just like American drivers: they expect value for their money, and none of the alternative methods of propulsion offers a good value proposition yet.


  1. Yes, this is an excellent point.

    BYD has done a good PR job (both locally and internationally). The Buffet stake helped no end, of course.

    But as for the sales themselves...the price tag is clearly a major factor - I read somewhere that it was around $20,000? This was why they were focusing on selling to companies and government departments, I thought. Although it does not seem to have worked out either.

    So how do they get the price down further? I read that their labour-intensive manufacturing is already pretty lean, although it sounds unlikely that they are generating economies of scale at current production levels.

    And is there still a sense of doubt on the battery technology itself?

    After all, it is often the second guy to get to market that makes the money, once he has learned from the technology leader's errors. Is there a China competitor in the wings?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Will.

    BYD certainly seems to have an advantage in lean production. BYD (and other Chinese automakers) don't have nearly the investment in fixed assets that their foreign competitors need.

    There are also some subsidies for consumers in some local jurisdictions (including Shenzhen, I think), but certainly not all. BYD's CEO, Wang Chuanfu has recently been heard to complain about the lack of adequate subsidies to promote early ownership of these comparatively expensive vehicles.

    As for their technology, BYD claims that their iron phosphate lithium ion battery is superior and cheaper to manufacture. I don't know whether there has been any independent verification of their claims though.

    One auto executive I spoke with a couple of months ago said that everyone's (that is, all Chinese automakers') claims about EV/hybrid performance are exaggerated. If you turn on the air conditioner, the distance any of these vehicles can go without a charge (or without using gasoline in the case of hybrids) drops significantly.

    What makes this space interesting though is that, for the first time in centuries, China is on a level playing field with everyone else in terms of developing a new technology. It's anybody's game at this point.


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