Emerging Tech

How China Will Dominate the U.S. Electric-Bus Market

An electric bus outside of an electric bus manufacturing plant by the Chinese firm BYD, in the Southern California city of Lancaster

An electric bus outside of an electric bus manufacturing plant by the Chinese firm BYD, in the Southern California city of Lancaster // Reed Saxon/AP

Next Monday, a battery-powered, 40-foot bus is set to roll off the assembly line in a former recreational vehicle factory in Lancaster, California, a blue-collar desert community north of Los Angeles, and be delivered to the local transit authority.

There’s no missing the symbolism—a defunct manufacturing plant that once made massive, gas-hogging RVs is reborn to produce carbon-free transportation (and local jobs)—as the world tips toward climate catastrophe.

But here’s who’s driving this $800,000 bus: China. The owner of the factory and the technology that lets the eBus go 155 miles on a charge is BYD, the $38 billion Chinese conglomerate that makes everything from electric cars to LED lighting to solar panels. (The company is best known in the United States for the owner of 10 percent of its shares—a Nebraskan investor named Warren Buffett.)

As I wrote in The New York Times last October about BYD’s move into Los Angeles:

THERE’S a newcomer to this city’s auto row. Compared to the shiny showrooms displaying the latest Mercedeses and Toyotas, the Chinese carmaker BYD’s outpost in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers looks rather forlorn.

Just two of its models — a red electric sport utility vehicle and a brown gasoline-powered sedan — are on view in an otherwise empty storefront. But it’s the pair of 40-foot-long battery-powered buses parked across the street that is driving the company’s ambitions to become the first Chinese automaker to break into the United States market.

The company beat American competitors to win contracts to build electric buses for transit agencies in Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach. BYD is also pursuing deals to supply electric shuttle buses to rental car agencies, amusement parks and Silicon Valley technology companies. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a two-month road-test of BYD’s battery-powered eBus in September.

Media attention, though, has focused on BYD’s rocky entry into the U.S. market. California state regulators last year docked the company $99,245 for violating state labor laws by under-paying Chinese engineers it brought over to work at the Lancaster factory. The labor commission later dropped that charge and reduced the fine to $37,803 for minor infractions of state labor laws.

Then in March, the Long Beach transit board canceled its $12.1 million deal with BYD for 10 buses because federal officials, who are providing most of the money for the transit project, said BYD had not been an eligible recipient of U.S. funding at the time of the bidding.   

Those setbacks are distractions from the real story: China has begun to emerge as a green tech and energy innovator.

Take the 324 kilowatt-hour iron phosphate battery that powers the eBus. BYD has built another factory in Lancaster to assemble battery packs, which can also be used to store renewable energy from solar panels or wind turbines. A smaller version of the battery pack powers the e6 SUV, giving it a range of 186 miles on a charge, compared to 75 miles for most electric cars currently on the market.

While Americans tend to focus on invented-in-Silicon-Valley technology—Tesla!—the rest of the world is jumping onboard the eBus. BYD has signed deals to supply the vehicle to countries in Asia, Europe and South America. And the e6 has started to appear in taxi fleets around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you hop in one at LAX sometime in the next few years.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., there’s a paucity of homegrown competitors in the electric bus market, with the leading rival being a South Carolina company called Proterra.

So count on continued coverage of Tesla Motors’ plans to sell its luxury electric sports sedan to China’s 1 percent—Elon Musk!—while China quietly moves the masses around Southern California and Silicon Valley in its silent-running eBuses.

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// 8:09 AM ET