China To Top U.S. Electric-Car Sales? Why Stats Don't Compare

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Aoxin Ibis electric car. Photo by CarNewsChina.com.

Aoxin Ibis electric car. Photo by CarNewsChina.com.

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Not all electric vehicles are created the same--and that's an important point to keep in mind when you read stories about how China's electric-car market is set to overtake that of the U.S.

Last year, roughly 118,000 battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars were sold in the U.S.

In China, monthly electric-car sales passed those of the U.S. last September, according to data from the Chinese news site Sina Auto.

DON'T MISS: Cue Kandi Store Jokes: Small Electric Car Goes On Sale In China

But the country's reported sales of plug-in cars--what China calls New Energy Vehicles--include both conventional cars and what would be deemed in the U.S. low-speed or neighborhood electric vehicles.

Those are passenger versions of small electric vehicles similar to the service trucks and retirement-community runabouts offered in the States by makers like Gem, previously owned by Chrysler Corp.

Those vehicles wouldn't meet U.S. standards for safety or equipment, and wouldn't be allowed to operate on U.S. highways.

Kandi electric car

Kandi electric car

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One such vehicle in China is the Kandi, a four-passenger five-door minicar that gained much attention for a car-sharing scheme that dispensed the little cars from large "vending machines" in big cities.

Last week, Kandi said it would start to offer its cars for retail sale in China as well as continuing the car-sharing service.

ALSO SEE: Will China Overtake The U.S. In Electric-Car Sales In 2015?

The role of neighborhood electric vehicles in furthering U.S. acceptance of plug-in electric cars was debated during the time that the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt first went on sale in December 2010.

But low-speed electrics have since faded from view as the Leaf, Volt, and Tesla Model S--and almost two dozen more on sale in some parts of the country--underscore the point that modern electric cars are fully highway capable and offer ranges of 60 to 275 miles.

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

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Both national and regional governments in China are heavily pushing adoption of electric cars as one way to address the dangerous level of airborne emissions from vehicles and industry in most Chinese cities.

The definition of a New Energy Vehicle can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general it means a car that plugs in--whether battery-electric cars of any size, from the Kandi through the Nissan Leaf to a Tesla Model S, or plug-in hybrids like the BYD Tang.

MORE: China Overtook U.S. In Monthly Electric-Car Sales Two Months Ago (Dec 2014)

Several large cities restrict the number of new cars that can be registered, with preferential treatment for plug-ins. The national government is also intensifying its focus on electric cars as a way to address choking and hazardous air pollution.

But most Chinese car buyers live in apartment buildings, making recharging a challenge, and the higher cost of electric cars is also a deterrent in the heavily value-driven volume car segment.

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

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Still, with China having passed the U.S. as the world's largest car market several years ago, it may seem logical to suggest that its plug-in electric car sales would surpass the U.S. too.

But remember that U.S. sales are solely highway-capable vehicles--while China's sales appear to be anything at all with four wheels and a plug.

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