Chinese electric car manufacturers are not ahead by 10 years

Until now, Chinese manufacturers established in Europe have not yet revolutionized anything. But then, where does this idea come from that Chinese manufacturers are so far ahead of us? This was the theme of the May 16 Watt Else newsletter editorial.

In the war between the pro and anti Chinese electric cars, we often hear everything and its opposite. In Watt Else, I have already expanded on certain remarks preached by opponents of Chinese brands. But among the most favorable, one argument is also surprising: the Chinese would be 10 years ahead. This deserves me to look a little more into the subject.

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In two decades, Chinese automobile manufacturers have gone from being outsiders to being dangerous competitors of historic brands. Their progress is dazzling. But do they really have as much head start as they are given? Not so sure.

Advance only for a Chinese elite

Above all, it would be appropriate to separate what happens in China from what Chinese manufacturers manage to achieve on export. China reportedly has more than a hundred national brands of new energy vehicles (electric and hybrid), but even the authorities struggle to confirm the exact figure. What we see emerging as a trend from Europe is only a small sample of the top of the basket. In this happy mess, some manufacturers stand out through their innovative capabilities, but it is impossible to put all brands in the same basket.

Xiaomi SU7 at the Beijing show // Source: Xiaomi
Xiaomi SU7 at the Beijing show // Source: Xiaomi

China is certainly 10 years ahead of the adoption of electric cars. Buying an electric car has become commonplace, the means put in by the government to do so are substantial. The market there is a priori mature, while in Europe (excluding Norway), we are still actively working on the issue.

We do it first, we improve later

The speed of releasing new products is impressive. The new Chinese models are released in just over two years, while it takes more than twice as long for European brands. The same goes for battery or autonomous driving technologies. These short deadlines are an illusion, because the Chinese have adopted continuous improvement as a philosophy. A product is never really finalized when it is launched. It will continue to be improved after the start of its marketing. It can evolve aesthetically less than a year after its launch to correct the situation.

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In the event of failure, the end of the product's life is just as quick and without procrastination. The industrial logic is based on numerous common developments so as not to take disproportionate financial risks on a particular model. Platforms are also evolving at a breakneck pace, with sales volumes in China helping (theoretically) to make investments profitable much more quickly.

BYD platform with blade battery // Source: Raphaelle Baut for NumeramaBYD platform with blade battery // Source: Raphaelle Baut for Numerama
Latest BYD platform with blade battery // Source: Raphaelle Baut for Numerama

Chinese manufacturers, like Tesla, have also sought to improve the industrialization of electric cars to reduce costs, where the historical players seem much more reluctant to change proven methods. All of this put together allows certain Chinese manufacturers to appear ahead of the curve. Let's just say that they are no longer late.

In France, Chinese cars are not so crazy

Some Chinese brands therefore set out to conquer Europe, convinced that they were doing better than the existing competition. However, no model tested recently could convince me to say that they are 10 years ahead. Can the launch of Xpeng in France on May 15 change the situation a little? This is still to be confirmed.

Launch of Xpeng in Paris // Source: Raphaelle BautLaunch of Xpeng in Paris // Source: Raphaelle Baut
Launch of Xpeng in Paris // Source: Raphaelle Baut

Several elements generally go wrong: technologies valid in China do not work (or poorly) in Europe, consumption is high, charging at fast terminals has random results, real performance is not there and the quality of the materials and/or assemblies are sometimes a few years late.

Without an attractive price or a change of approach, some brands are heading for bitter commercial failure. Like the Japanese and Koreans before them, Chinese brands will not be able to ignore adapting to the tastes of customers in the markets they target. In Europe, they are simply not the leaders they hoped for.

Michael Shu - DG BYD Europe // Source: Raphaelle Baut for NumeramaMichael Shu - DG BYD Europe // Source: Raphaelle Baut for Numerama
Michael Shu – DG BYD Europe – sees himself as a leader in Europe // Source: Raphaelle Baut for Numerama

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