Buffett-Backed BYD Plans 2010 U.S. Arrival for Electric Auto

Business Week, January 12, 2010

By Alan Ohnsman

Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) -- BYD Co., the Chinese auto- and battery maker backed by Warren Buffett, will sell a rechargeable electric car in the U.S. in 2010 as it speeds deliveries to meet demand for fuel-efficient models.

The first e6 hatchbacks will arrive in the U.S. late this year, Henry Li, general manager of BYD’s auto export division, said today at the Detroit auto show. BYD said the five-passenger car can travel 200 miles (322 kilometers) on one charge.

BYD’s plan accelerates the timetable set last year for a 2011 debut. That move is “very ambitious and probably too risky” in a market dominated by hybrids such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius, 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.”

BYD, based in Shenzhen, China, was the country’s sixth- largest automaker last year based on sales. Li declined to give a price or a volume target for the e6 or specify which U.S. market would receive the car first.

“We have to consider infrastructure, availability of charging points,” Li said. “California is a top candidate.”

Batteries will push the e6’s weight past those of comparable compact cars to 5,060 pounds (2,295 kilograms), according to BYD. That’s 500 pounds more than Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer mid-size sport-utility vehicle.

Buffett’s Stake

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.

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

BYD was unchanged at HK$68.10 in Hong Kong trading. The shares have surged more than fivefold in the past 12 months.

In an interview yesterday in Detroit, Chairman Wang Chuanfu signaled BYD’s intention to hasten sales in the U.S., saying BYD would “start toward” the country in the second half.

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 at the North American International Auto Show.

Oil Alternative

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.”

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, 43, 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, Steve Walsh

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