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LA Is Launchpad For Fleet Tests of China's BYD Electric Cars


While most of us won’t have a chance any time soon to drive a car produced by Chinese automaker BYD Co., a few employees of the City of Los Angeles are getting that opportunity right now.

And, those of you inclined to use mass transportation may have the opportunity next year to ride in an electric bus produced by BYD.

Testing the waters

These are small-scale tryouts of BYD's technology.  If it proves itself, that could be a win for U.S. drivers. It could also be a great deal for BYD. But if the technology doesn't live up to its billing, it will be a very public loss of face—and future sales—for the Chinese automaker.

"We can introduce BYD as a consumer brand to U.S. consumers who don't know BYD from a hole in the wall," says Austin Beutner, first deputy mayor and chief executive for Economic and Business Policy for the City of Los Angeles, where BYD recently opened an office.

byd f3dm 001

byd f3dm 001

Enlarge Photo

As part of a broader agreement signed in mid-2010, the City’s Housing Authority recently leased 10 of BYD’s F3DM plug-in hybrid cars. The F3DM became available to consumers in China in mid-2010, but sales have been slow. So, the technology is relatively untested.

Trying many horses

That doesn’t matter to the City of Los Angeles.  BYD is only one of the “horses” the city is trying out in the strategy to reduce its carbon footprint, says Beutner.

“Think of us as a racetrack,” he says. “I want to fill all the stalls. If BYD’s technology does best in the marketplace, we will think well of the company."

byd f3dm plug in hybrid 002

byd f3dm plug in hybrid 002

Enlarge Photo

It’s a fairly low-risk experiment, points out Beutner. BYD is responsible for the cars’ maintenance. And it is only 10 cars, after all.  Fleets are a great way to give the technology a test drive, he says. “The (Housing Authority)  inspectors are on a defined route, and we set the operating conditions,” he says.

Gas-car sales down

BYD’s sales in China of its gasoline cars have taken a hit the last few months. In November, its sales fell 18 percent compared to the same month in 2009, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

To be sure, BYD’s sales are up 22 percent for the first 11 months of the year. But the total passenger car market is up 39 percent.

BYD e6 concept

BYD e6 concept

Enlarge Photo

So, does that make Beutner worry that BYD won’t be able to meet its obligations to the City? Not really.  Part of the company is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and, “last time I looked, (BYD’s) market cap was $15 to 20 billion,” he says. Legendary investor Warren Buffet also owns 10 percent of the company.

Buses soon?

As for pure electric vehicles, Los Angeles is in line to get some of BYD’s pure electric K9 buses, perhaps by mid-2011.  The City is waiting for more testing in China on the electric drivetrain technology used in the buses, says Beutner.  After that, any test fleet would be a relatively modest number, he says.

The City also plans to lease BYD’s e6 electric crossover, someday. It is already in taxi fleets in China in limited numbers, and is the vehicle BYD hopes one day to introduce for U.S. consumer sales. When that may happen is unclear.

Recent stories about BYD canceling an electric vehicle development program have been greatly exaggerated, says Michael Austin, vice president of BYD America. The canceled model—the F3e—was never a production model, it was a concept, he says.

BYD decided to use the money for improvements in the e6, says BYD's Austin: “It was the right choice."

From buses to crossovers

The electric drivetrain technology in the e6 is the same as that in the electric buses, Austin points out.

BYD, at Detroit auto show

BYD, at Detroit auto show

Enlarge Photo

“If we didn’t have confidence in the technology, we wouldn’t have announced a mass-transit bus manufacturing plant (in China) with the same technology embedded in each bus,” he says. Beutner hopes the buses will be manufactured here some day.

Meanwhile, if you are in a BYD electric bus next year and it breaks down, you might not want to buy a BYD e6 crossover when it goes on sale. But, if it's a smooth, problem-free ride, perhaps you'll see more BYD vehicles on the roads sooner rather than later.

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