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BYD plugs into India’s electric growth story

V Rishi Kumar | Updated on December 19, 2019 Published on December 19, 2019

The high-tech assembly line at a BYD facility in Shenzhen

Chinese automaker pushing the envelope with a wide range of e-vehicles in the country

There is nothing as exhilarating as sheer speed.

The setting is in China, where a mid-sized SUV literally zooms from 0-100 km in less than 4.5 seconds: 4.4, to be precise. It is all-electric and runs 600 km on a single charge. Additionally, its fast-charge can juice up the battery power pack of this four-wheel drive SUV in barely 90 minutes.

Welcome to the world of BYD Co, which offers this experience on wheels in China. Named Tang, after one of the most prosperous dynasties in China, the electric SUV clearly sets some new benchmarks. A test drive shows the kind of strides the Shenzhen-based BYD has made in electric mobility.

The Dynasty series of passenger vehicles are christened Qin Pro, Tang EV and Tang DM, Song Pro, Song Max and Yuan. Founded by Wang Chuanfu, a chemist and now a billionaire, BYD has clearly come a long way since it began its journey way back in 1995. One of its celebrated investors is Warren Buffet, who has had a 10 per cent stake for a decade now.

Seeing operations at the BYD plant is an experience by itself and it is quite natural for a first-time visitor to get all starry-eyed. Beeping robots move a mattress-sized lithium ion pack which is then lifted by a crane and mounted in the underbelly of the chassis.

Workers dressed in all-blue uniforms fasten the pack with power tools and before you know it a gleaming car rolls out of the assembly line, ready for testing.

During a visit to the BYD facilities in Shenzhen, this writer soaked in the experience of the various manufacturing processes, right from lithium ion battery making to the assembly line for electric powered cargo units and forklifts.

Humble origins

It is almost amazing to think that the same BYD had humble origins as an electronics company focussed on developing batteries for mobile phones, laptops, cameras and other electronic equipment. It took no time to spread its wings to enter other areas of electronics and ended up making a wide range of equipment and battery packs. The best part is that the journey is still on, which means there are more frontiers to be scaled.

In 2003, the company acquired the ailing state-owned automaker, Xian Qinchaun Auto Co, and got a foothold into the automotive sector. The first move thereafter was internal combustion engines and, barely five years later, the launch of its first plug-in hybrid. Over the last decade, it has developed hybrid cars, electric buses, trucks and even the SkyRail.

As China began to experience the harsh reality of pollution in its big cities, the government encouraged the launch of electric buses by offering generous sops. BYD was quick to grab the opportunity and rolled out its electric buses as part of the clean-up effort in those choked metros.

Location helped

The location of BYD’s plant also helped the Shenzhen Bus Company and other operators in the public transport space to move from internal combustion engines to hybrid, and now an all-electric fleet. Data show that over 17,000 electric public transport buses are used in Shenzhen with more than 20,000 e-cabs. Needless to add, a lion’s share has been supplied by BYD.

Sensing the difficulty of managing public transport in congested cities, coupled with the imperatives of last-mile connectivity, the company has developed SkyRail for a city in China and bagged an order from another. It also operates the SkyRail at its Shenzhen facility, where employees use it to move within the campus.

The company believes this could be an attractive proposition for cities seeking an extremely cost-effective and practical solution. The SkyRail’s deployment costs barely 20 per cent of a conventional metrorail, and takes less than a third of its time.

Focus on India

Beyond the shores of China, it is now only too well known that India’s automotive sector is on the radar of Chinese companies. As a result, it is only natural to anticipate a lot of action in the coming years. BYD entered the market with Olectra Greentech to offer its electric buses under the Centre’s FAME I scheme.

Zhang Jie Ketsu, Executive Director of BYD India, says it has deployed more than 200 e-buses in India across six cities so far. "It recently launched the T3 MPV and T3 minivan series and the next objective is to set up an exclusive distribution network. Just for the record, it has delivered more than 50,000 e-buses in China and other parts of the world,” he said.

In India, BYD is seeking to expand its manufacturing base on a 35-acre site near Chennai. Plans are also underway to increase the output of its lithium ion battery assembly line at the same location. The facility can cater to the needs of BYD as well as other electric vehicle makers.

Anticipating demand for electric buses and trucks to go up significantly in this part of the world, BYD is keen on playing a bigger role with its EV line-up. These could even include its cars, for which the company is weighing options.

Given the Centre’s keen push for electric, it is only natural for the likes of BYD to throw their hats into the ring and compete aggressively. The company is open to tie-ups with local players and is looking at launching a pure EV for individual users by end-2021.

Beyond the auto space, BYD has grown in the battery technologies space and caters to the needs of mobile makers such as Nokia, Motorola, Huawei, Xiaomi and Dell. Given that it owns lithium mines, it has now emerged as an integrated battery producer.

Its battery pack manufacturing capacity is set to reach 65 GWh by the end of this year, which means that it can extend its customer reach to new/renewable energy backup systems. Clearly, the sky is the limit for BYD as it pushes the envelope in the electric space.

Advantage Chinese firms

The intent is also reflective of the impressive strides China has made in e-mobility. Even while India is keen to emulate this, there is a lot of work ahead. Chinese automakers have clearly got a huge head-start and will be doubly keen on making an impact in India.

For now, SAIC has made its intent known with the MG Hector and wasted little time with an electric SUV. Changan Automobile is also eyeing the landscape here and will soon identify land for its new plant. Reports have been doing the rounds that Great Wall Motors could end up acquiring General Motors’ facility near Talegan to kickstart its India story.

Globally, one of the biggest Chinese success stories in the auto sphere has been Geely, which has grown from strength to strength since its buyout of Volvo Cars over a decade ago. It now has sizable stakes in Volvo Trucks and Daimler AG with speculation rife that an alliance with Tata Motors could just happen sometime soon. Now, with BYD also displaying its aggressive intent, the next decade in India’s automotive script could have a sizable Chinese menu on its roads!

The writer was in Shenzhen at the invitation of BYD

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Published on December 19, 2019
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