Buffett-Backed BYD Sees U.S. as Key for Electric Cars (Update 1)

Bloomberg.com, January 12, 2010

Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) -- BYD Co., the Chinese auto- and battery maker backed byWarren Buffett, may sell a rechargeable electric car in the U.S. as soon as this year to meet demand for fuel-efficient models, the company’s founder said.

“The U.S. is a very important market for BYD in the future, and the electric vehicle is our future,” Chairman Wang Chuanfu said yesterday in an interview at the Detroit auto show. “We will start toward the market in the second half.”

Beginning U.S. sales in 2010 would accelerate the timetable BYD set last year, when the Shenzhen, China-based automaker targeted a 2011 debut. Speeding up the model’s debut in a market dominated by hybrids such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius is “very ambitious and probably too risky,” said Bill Russo, a Beijing-based senior adviser at Booz & Co.

“Introducing a new brand and technology to a mature market is a major task for even the most experienced companies,” Russo said. It “seems like a stretch for a relatively new company like BYD.”

Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns a 10 percent stake in the company. BYD introduced its F3DM plug-in hybrid to company and government agency buyers in December 2008, and sold 39 of the vehicles in the first 11 months of 2009.

Cutting Costs

The company pushed back sales of the model to individual customers until this year after it failed to cut costs, Radio Television Hong Kong reported in November.

BYD sees a chance to reach U.S. buyers who want cars that use little or no gasoline and cut emissions of greenhouse gases, and it faces pressure in China to develop electric vehicles for energy security, Wang said.

China’s auto market grew to 13.6 million units in 2009, surpassing the U.S. for the first time, and “it’s possible over the next five years it will grow to 20 million,” Wang said. “We’ll consume a huge amount of oil that China doesn’t have and may not be able to buy.”

Wang, 43, is to discuss details of BYD’s plans for the U.S. later today at a press conference at the North American International Auto Show. While overall passenger-car sales in China grew 53 percent last year, Wang said BYD’s deliveries jumped 160 percent to about 450,000.

Wang was named China’s richest man by Forbes Magazine in November after Buffett’s investment helped increase his estimated personal wealth to $5.8 billion.

Buffett, 79, has yet to visit BYD’s factories in China, Wang said.

“I hope he’ll come,” he said.

--Tian Ying in Beijing. Editors: Ed Dufner, Jamie Butters

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Alan Ohnsman in Detroit +1-323-559-1067 or aohnsman@bloomberg.net; Tian Ying in Beijing at +86-10-6649-7571 or ytian@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: January 11, 2010 22:38 EST

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