Take one look at the news coming out of Detroit this week and you’ll know that the electric car revolution seems well and truly under way. Nearly every major automaker is now extolling the virtues of electric car technology when a few years earlier, they were dismissing them as impractical, impossible and costly.  

But in the rush to adopt the technology some automakers are falling victim to some good old-fashioned industrial espionage. Not from their rivals in Detroit, but China. 

This morning, French automaker Renault announced that it has summoned three of its managers to see company bosses today under charges of industrial espionage.

The were suspended without pay last week after un-named sources claimed they were “caught red-handed” passing information to an international spy ring. 

Charged with sharing secrets of Renault’s electric car program with an un-named Chinese rival, It is expected the three men will lose their jobs. 

Renault and its partner company Nissan have spent more than $5 billion on electric car development and plan to launch eight separate electric cars on the market in the next four years, including the 2011 Nissan LEAF, the 2012 Renault Fluence ZE midsize sedan and the Renault Twizy city runabout.

Renault Twizy Concept

Renault Twizy Concept

On the other side of the fence,  Chinese automaker BYD was recently deeply embroiled in a court case in which it was charged with stealing lithium-ion battery technology from leading Japanese electronics company Sony. 

We should point out here that BYD has legal development agreements with several automakers, including Daimler and  Volkswagen. But many other firms are chosing to steal technology rather than legally license it.

Let’s not forget though that it’s hardly new for automakers to copy one another. It’s a well-known fact that most automakers still have a covert team responsible for clandestinely purchasing their rival’s vehicles from a car dealership for the sole purpose of quite literally reverse-engineering the competition, bolt by bolt. 

Patent laws are very rarely broken using this method. It’s not about copying: it’s about finding out how your rival made their car and making sure yours is better. 

But Chinese disregard of patent laws means that cloning technology rather than beating rival technology is a daily part of automotive design.  

You only have to look at the huge number of SmartForTwo look-a-likes on sale as low-speed Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to realise that for many companies, imitation is considered the best form of flattery.

Renault Fluence EV

Renault Fluence EV

Such patent infringement and espionage could threaten the very heart of the electric car industry, however. A poorly copied or made non-licensed battery is unlikely to function as well as a licensed battery technology, increasing the risk of fire, explosion and death. 

Add to this the loss of income from legal licensing technology and many automakers may struggle to recuperate the legally shared and developed technology costs, jeopardising future development. 

Until the Chinese government takes steps to ensure piracy ends and technology is legally shared between its car companies as it is with the rest of the auto industry, Chinese automakers will continue an uphill struggle to gain support in the west.