China is selling more electric vehicles than the US—and it’s not even close

Belle of the ball.
Belle of the ball.
Image: EPA/ Diego Azubel
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The electric car has finally arrived—and most of them are racing off to China. China registered as many as 352,000 new electric vehicles (EV) in 2016, compared to only 159,000 cars registered in the US during the same time period (more than half of which were in California).

While automotive analysts caution China’s numbers could be inflated due to subsidy cheating, even the lower estimates remain higher than the US. (Navigant Consulting puts China’s 2016 figure as low as 250,000, but expects new registrations will nearly double this year).

“It was inevitable that China’s EV adoption was going to pass the US mostly because we’re so resistant to EVs,” says Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. Lindland predicts many Chinese drivers’ first cars will be electric and younger generations may never own a gas-powered vehicle.

China is now aggressively championing the EV. The world’s second-largest economy wants 11% of all car sales to be electric by 2020. This should add up to nearly 3 million such vehicles sold annually. Sales of “New Energy Vehicles,” as they are called in China, accounted for about half of all plug-in electric vehicles sold globally last year (and many were manufactured by China’s own automakers).

That matters because where China goes, carmakers will follow: While the US car market has plateaued at around 17.5 million units sold annually, China sold more than 28 million vehicles last year and its market is growing quickly.

To further accelerate its transition to electric mobility, China is throwing massive amounts of money behind charging infrastructure and financial incentives. State news agency Xinhua said the government will deploy 100,000 public charging stations in 2017 alone, almost doubling the current total of 150,000. The US has only about 41,000 public charging outlets or plugs (at about 16,000 stations).

China also exempts electric cars from acquisition and excise taxes (worth $6,000 to $10,000 per car), while giving special lane access and other perks, reports the International Energy Agency (pdf). Meanwhile in the US, subsidies are waning. The Trump administration is reportedly considering cutting the EV tax break (worth up to $7,500 for buyers, although usually far less).

There are other factors to consider, as well. While Tesla and Chevy race to release their mass-market EVs—priced around $35,000—next year, China is already manufacturing its own far simpler versions for much less. It’s just not categorizing them as such. China’s immensely popular “low-speed electric vehicle” (LSEV) uses a basic battery (usually lead-acid) and electric motor technologies. In other words, it’s an electric vehicle.

China’s low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs) have a top speed of about 40 mph (70 kph) and cost about $5,0000
China’s low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs) have a top speed of about 40 mph (70 kph) and cost about $5,0000
Image: Dennis Zuev

“The whole Shandong province [population 90 million] is riding LSEVs,” notes Dennis Zuev, a mobility researcher at Lancaster University, “even in big cities.” The small, cheap vehicles (each one costs about $5,000) can travel up to 40 miles/hour (70 km/hour) and don’t require a driver’s license or license plate to operate.

While China only includes approved EV brands in its tallies (and subsidy program) at the moment, it may soon add LSEVs to the count. The vehicles have seen explosive sales: 600,000 units were sold in 2015 and they are on track to top 2 million by 2020, reports Research in China.