China’s Green Plug-In Machine

BYD's F3DM plug-in hybridWhile major automakers such as GM and Toyota prepare to put batteries front and center in their first plug-in hybrid vehicles, a Chinese battery maker has beaten them to the road. As of yesterday, Shenzen-based BYD Auto — a subsidiary of leading Chinese rechargeable battery producer BYD Group — is selling the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid car, according to Bloomberg. This battery-loaded version of BYD’s F3 sedan is said to travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) on stored grid power alone.

Many observers deride the car’s styling as plain and derivative. BBC global business correspondent Peter Day, who drove BYD’s plug-in this weekend, says they’re missing the point: “Critics say this is a copycat car, but that is how the Japanese auto industry started.”

Green Car Congress reports that the plug-in is dubbed the F3DM after its ‘dual-mode’ hybrid system. Misleadingly dubbed, that is, because the vehicle actually operates in three distinct modes:

  • a battery-powered EV mode
  • a series-hybrid mode whereby the gas engine recharges the batteries while the electric motors drive the wheels, and
  • a parallel-hybrid mode whereby both motors and engine drive the wheels.

This marks a contrast with GM’s Chevy Volt, due out two years from now, which dispatches with the parallel hybrid option.

BYD Auto’s parent company is making lithium batteries for the car using employ lithium iron phophate cathodes — a safer design than the lithium cobalt oxide cathodes used in cell phone batteries. Boston-area battery developer A123 uses the same chemistry; A123 is believed to have lost out in the competition to supply the first-generation Chevy Volt but is in the running for many other hybrids and electric vehicles in development.

BYD says it will bring the F3DM to the U.S. market in 2011, but must first pass U.S. crash tests and set up a dealer network. It has a well-connected U.S. investor to help navigate the U.S. hurdles: billionaire investor Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway investment group bought a one-tenth stake in BYD for $230 million in September.

China beats the U.S. and Europe to market with what was supposed to be GM’s signature development. The headline reinforces a growing sense that China is suddenly a green technology developer to be reckoned with. A top wind power market. Major photovoltaics production. It looks like the Cleantech Group may have got it right earlier this month when, summing up its forum in Shanghai, it concluded that China could soon be, “the world’s leading laboratory, market for and exporter of clean technologies.”

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

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