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These Chinese EV makers are eyeing the US and Europe even as they struggle at home

Echo Huang

At least six Chinese electric car makers say they’re determined to begin sales in Europe and the US this year or the next, but some of them barely have a presence at home, making those plans appear far-fetched.

Declining auto sales in China are driving local car makers to look for growth opportunities elsewhere. But two among the six EV firms have yet to sell a single car at home, raising questions over how they’ll enter some of the world’s most challenging markets—especially given trade tensions with the US and tariffs on Chinese goods.

The difficulty of what they’re trying to do is underscored by the fact that the world’s biggest electric vehicle manufacturer—China’s BYD (membership exclusive)—has several times postponed plans to sell its cars in Europe or the US, although it has exported electric buses widely. The company doesn’t have a schedule for selling cars in those markets now.

Five-year-old Kaiyun Motors has become one of the first Chinese EV brands overseas, with plans to ship its mini-electric pickups to Germany and Italy as soon as March. They are selling Pickman vehicle, a pared-down form of EV with a maximum speed of under 30 miles per hour, which could be used on work sites or farms.

A spokesperson for Kaiyun told Quartz today (July 24) that they have sold around 40 cars to the US, mostly in California, and 30 to France, Spain, and Sweden since May. The firm said it has sold around 4,900 units of the same model in China this year. Kaiyun said it aims at selling between 3,000 to 4,000 cars to the US by the end of 2020, but said it’s “conservative” in sharing a figure on sales in Europe.

Here’s a list of the EV makers who have their sights set on Europe and the US, in order of target sales dates, based on company interviews and media reports.

Company Overseas market destinations Time
Kaiyun Motors US, Germany, Italy 2019
Lynk & Co Belgium, Germany, Netherland, Spain, UK, US Europe in late 2019, US in 2020
Aiways Germany, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway Spring 2020
Byton North America, Europe Mid-2020
BAIC Europe 2020
Qiantu US 2020

If Chinese EV firms are able to enter developed markets—a big if—that would be quite a milestone for China’s car industry. But time is ticking, with familiar brands like Audi, Subaru, and Mercedes-Benz also bringing their electric vehicles to Europe and the US.

Even China’s conventional car exports are just a fraction compared with the 28 million vehicles sold last year in the world’s largest auto market, with China importing far more than it exports. Nearly 18% of European car exports, by value, go to China, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. Last year, European-owned car makers made six million cars in China, or about a quarter of production in the country, the association said. Meanwhile, China imports about 280,000 cars from the US, while American brands also manufacture many more in the country.

Chinese EV makers might eventually achieve their big ambitions, but expect delays.

Aiways, a four-year-old EV startup based in Shanghai, has said it will bring its flagship U5 sports utility vehicle to Europe next spring—just months after it begins manufacturing the model in China in September. Byton, a billion-dollar startup that’s backed by gaming and social giant Tencent and traditional carmaker First Automobile Works, has yet to deliver its M-Byte SUV in China. And Qiantu wants to assemble and sell its luxury passenger car K50 in the US next year—but the company only sold 59 units (link in Chinese) of it last year.

Two brands backed by major players do have mass sales records, but it’s unclear they’ll be able to stick to their timelines either.

Lynk & Co, part of Zhejiang-based Geely, which owns Swedish brand Volvo, hoped to come to Europe this year, and the US in 2020. Volvo in November said it’s delaying a plan to help affiliate Lynk & Co build cars in Belgium, but said at the time it wouldn’t affect sales plans. The three-year-old company sold 8,655 units of its electric models (including battery and hybrids) in June, down from 9,090 in May.

State-owned carmaker BAIC, one of the biggest manufacturers of EVs in China, plans to bring its models to Europe next year. BAIC’s electric-vehicle focused subsidiary BJEV sold around 9,000 EVs in May, down nearly 50% from the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the Verge reported that one company that had hoped to sell its SF5 electric SUV in the US this year, just confirmed this month it’s putting off those plans. Seres, an American brand owned by Chinese firm Sokon, also laid off 90 people from its 300-person Silicon Valley office, according to the report.

A company spokesperson told Quartz that only 47 positions were affected, and that the company is continuing to assemble SF5 prototypes at its Indiana plant. But it said it was “very complex and too risky” to launch the same product in China and the US simultaneously.

“…Of course, the current state of the auto market in China and the uncertainty of the US-China trade negotiations and tariff situation were also factors in our decision to delay the product launch,” the company added.

Update, July 24th: The article has been updated with a statement from Kaiyun Motors.

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