Will US auto industry simply succumb to China over electric cars?

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BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

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For a century, the U.S. auto industry was the world's largest.

That ended in 2009, when China's sales of 13.5 million new vehicles surpassed a recession-slammed U.S. total of 10.4 million.

Last year, U.S. drivers bought 17.5 million new vehicles—against more than 30 million sales in China.

DON'T MISS: Why China will beat U.S. in electric-car battle: urgency, regulations

The U.S. still has arguably the most demanding and most highly regulated new-vehicle market in the world.

But a growing chorus of industry and business analysts worry that complacent U.S. car companies, lulled by record sales of profitable pickup trucks and utility vehicles, are setting themselves up for a fall by not moving fast enough on electric cars.

It's a script we've heard before. Just a decade ago General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and had to be restructured with U.S. government backing.

Interior of Chevrolet Cruise AV self-driving car, to go into production in 2019

Interior of Chevrolet Cruise AV self-driving car, to go into production in 2019

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Today, GM has explicitly traded volume for profits, and invests billions into new technologies for the future, including electrification and self-driving vehicles.

Ford fired its CEO last May—in part for no new electrified vehicles launched over five years, some analysts suggest—but new CEO Jim Hackett's approach to future technologies remains murky.

And Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is searching for a partner or purchaser. It has larger issues to address than its lack of plug-in electric vehicles.

READ THIS: We visited NYC's Ford Hub; we still don't know what it was

In D.C., top Trump administration appointees deny accepted climate science, and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt now promotes fossil fuels as the agency modifies, halts, or eliminates emission and environmental regulations.

The EPA and NHTSA appear to be planning to freeze, even roll back, corporate average fuel economy standards and linked carbon-emission limits in effect since 2012.

Meanwhile, China said last September it will soon decide when it will ban the sale of new vehicles with internal-combustion engines.

Beijing smog

Beijing smog

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Old China hand Michael Dunne explained last month why he felt China would win the electric-car battle of the future: Its government urgently needs to be seen improving air quality, and its command economy can regulate far more broadly and forcefully than the U.S. ever will.

A similar thought piece on the Thomson Reuters news service echoes the theme, asking, "Is the U.S. at risk of losing its auto industry to China?"

It uses the example of Volvo, whose "recent moves make it clear," Thomson Reuters managing director Joe Harpaz wrote, "just how profound an impact the electric-vehicle revolution will have on the auto industry."

CHECK OUT: Hey, media, get it straight: "electrified" is NOT "electric," and the difference matters

While some consumers may still think of Volvo largely for its reliable, very safe, boxy station wagons, the company is now owned by Chinese maker Geely, and planning to offer electrified versions of every model it makes starting next year.

It will not only have plug-in hybrid versions of every model, but a 200-mile or more battery-electric version of its upcoming XC40 small crossover utility vehicle.

And it's also planning a luxury brand called Polestar that will offer high-end performance models, both fully electric and plug-in hybrid, that it hopes will challenge Tesla—and provide them on demand to consumers through a service that spares them the hassles of actual ownership.

Volvo 40.1 concept

Volvo 40.1 concept

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Volvo CMA modular compact car platform in electric configuration

Volvo CMA modular compact car platform in electric configuration

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Polestar 1

Polestar 1

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General Motors is experimenting with many of the same technologies, business models, and ideas at the larger scale that being one of the world's four largest automakers affords it.

Ford's strategy remains unclear and Fiat Chrysler appears to be looking for a savior while earning money off the most truck-heavy lineup of the three.

But if gas prices stay low for several years, as most forecasters predict they will amid a glut of oil caused by surging U.S. production, will U.S. makers show any interest in leading the way toward electric cars?

Or will China sweep to the fore and render the U.S. makers the runners-up? Stay tuned.

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