China's Plucky Plug-In Hybrid
By David Welch
In recent years, China's upstart carmakers have flocked to major auto expos with low-priced offerings aimed at global markets. This year's Detroit auto show, which opens on Jan. 13, will be little different. But this time around, one company, BYD Auto, won't just show the usual compacts and subcompacts. BYD plans to exhibit a plug-in hybrid, the F6DM (for "dual mode"), that it says will hit the market in China this summer. Although the car won't reach the U.S. for years, if ever, it would be the first plug-in to be commercially available—allowing BYD to steal a march on General Motors (GM), which is expecting to launch the Chevrolet Volt in 2010.
The question is whether BYD, which has been in the car business for just five years, can manage what it's promising. Claims made at auto shows should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism, and when it comes to something as advanced as a plug-in hybrid, myriad problems could crop up. Plug-ins are similar to Toyota's (TM) popular Prius, with a small gasoline engine as well as an electric motor, but can also be recharged by plugging into a standard outlet. This offers far greater fuel economy but requires more sophisticated batteries. "Anyone can show a demonstration vehicle," says Menahem Anderman, president of Total Battery Consulting, which advises carmakers on electrics. "You need at least three or four years of testing before you can go into production."
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