China’s EVs are going global. Why Tesla, other carmakers are worried

The U.S.-China rivalry has a new flashpoint in the battle for technology supremacy: electric cars.

So far, the U.S. is losing.

Last year, China became the world’s foremost auto exporter, according to the China Passenger Car Assn., surpassing Japan with more than 5 million sales overseas. New energy vehicles accounted for about 25% of those exports, and more than half of those were created by Chinese brands, a shift from the traditional assembly role China has played for foreign automakers.

“The big growth has happened in the last three years,” said Stephen Dyer, head of the Asia automotive and industrials unit at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. “With Chinese automakers making inroads for most of the market share, that’s a huge challenge for foreign automakers.”

China’s rapid expansion domestically and abroad has added fuel to a series of clashes between the U.S. and China over trade and advanced technology, as competition intensifies between the two superpowers.

The U.S. has lofty goals for expanding its own EV industry. California, which accounted for 37% of the nation’s electric car sales as of 2022, aims to phase out purchases of new cars that run on fossil fuels by 2035.

Concerns about Chinese oversupply have come just as a broader slowdown in sales has hit EV makers. Tesla announced Monday that it would lay off more than 10% of its workforce in an effort to reduce costs and increase productivity.

In the company’s last earnings report in January, Chief Executive Elon Musk warned about the competitiveness of Chinese brands. BYD, China’s largest EV maker, surpassed Tesla in car sales last year.

“If there are not trade barriers established, they will pretty much demolish most other car companies in the world,” Musk said.

This year, Manhattan Beach-based Fisker Inc., an electrical vehicle startup, cut 15% of its workforce, had its stock delisted and said it might file for bankruptcy protection. Apple also recently announced an end to its long-held ambitions of making a self-driving EV.

One area in which Chinese automakers handily beat Western competitors is on price, thanks to government subsidies that supported the industry’s initial rise as well as cheap access to critical minerals and components such as lithium-ion batteries, which account for about a third of the overall cost of production.

“It always had these ingredients waiting around,” said Cory Combs, an associate director for Chinese energy policy at the consulting firm Trivium China. “It was kind of a magic moment for these things to come together.”

That enabled the success of BYD, which started producing lithium-ion batteries in 1996 and making cars in 2005.

In March, BYD cut the price of its cheapest EV model in China to less than $10,000. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average EV retail price is $55,343 in the U.S., compared with $48,247 across all vehicles.

While pricing wars have forced Chinese automakers to slash profit margins at home, they can charge more in overseas markets, further incentivizing exports as domestic growth has slowed. According to research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, demand in China has cooled due to the removal of tax breaks and an increase in the use of public transportation post-pandemic.

“There is a ton of pressure, especially if you are a smaller player, to find a market that is less competitive,” Combs said. “And every market is less competitive than China’s.”

Though 27.5% tariffs have in effect locked Chinese EVs out of the U.S. market, the fear that the cheaper models could eventually undermine American automakers has started to spread.

The Alliance of American Manufacturing warned in a February report that allowing Chinese EVs into the country would be an “extinction-level event” for the U.S. auto industry. The group also cited the risks of Chinese auto companies building facilities across the border in Mexico that could circumvent tariffs.

When the global market is flooded by artificially cheap Chinese products, the viability of American and other foreign firms is put into question

— Janet Yellen

After a trip to China in April, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen expressed concerns about government-funded overcapacity in Chinese manufacturing of electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels. She noted that other advanced and emerging markets shared those worries, and compared the oversupply to a flood of low-cost Chinese steel hitting the global economy more than a decade ago.

“When the global market is flooded by artificially cheap Chinese products, the viability of American and other foreign firms is put into question,” Yellen said.

The European Union has opened an investigation into government subsidies utilized by China’s EV industry and whether such support violates international trade laws.

China’s state news agency pushed back on claims of overcapacity in an April article, which said exports accounted for 12% of China’s EV sales last year. It attributed the industry’s success to competitive pricing and technology, rather than government subsidies.

After meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping decried protectionism in other countries and said Chinese EV exports have helped ease global inflation and combat climate change.

How the U.S. is addressing the emergence of China’s EV dominance has already become a hot-button issue for the presidential election in November.

President Biden has encouraged the domestic expansion with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes electric vehicle tax credits for U.S. manufacturers, but not if they are sourcing minerals and materials from “foreign entities of concern,” such as China. Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Trump has claimed electric car manufacturing will reduce auto industry jobs, and called for a rollback of the EV-friendly policies enacted during Biden’s term.

Politicians from both parties have proposed even harsher tariffs on Chinese-made EVs should they try to enter the U.S. market, prioritizing the protection of U.S. jobs over goals to reduce carbon emissions.

“That will make it even more important for Chinese companies to set up local assembly operations to minimize those costs,” said Gregor Sebastian, senior analyst at the New York-based consulting firm Rhodium Group. “A lot of companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach.”

Even without Chinese auto imports, the technology within the vehicles has unnerved U.S. officials. In March, Biden announced an investigation into Chinese-made “smart cars” and the data the internet-connected vehicles could collect on American users. Collaborations between U.S. companies and CATL, the Chinese battery-making behemoth, have also been subject to greater scrutiny as tensions between the two countries have worsened.

But China has spent decades cementing its status as a global leader in procuring minerals and developing critical technologies such as EV batteries while the U.S. has fallen behind. That will make it harder now for Western automakers to wholly shut out Chinese suppliers, said Tu Le, founder and managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a consulting firm.

“If automakers are going to build affordable, clean-energy vehicles this decade, the only way that happens is by using Chinese batteries,” Le said.