On the floor of a cavernous factory in southern China, dozens of unfinished cars, freshly painted in cherry red or dark silver, dangled 6 feet above a spotless concrete floor. Their engines had been installed a few moments earlier, but they were still skeletal, more the promise of vehicles than the real thing. As they drifted down the line, a sledlike robot scooted into position beneath each chassis, slowing to match its speed.
The robot carried a crucial payload: a battery about the size and shape of a double mattress, wrapped in a gray plastic casing. Suddenly, an accordion lift extended upward from the sled and inserted the battery into the car's undercarriage. Workers in blue jumpsuits and white cotton gloves moved swiftly to the battery's edges, carrying rivet guns connected by curling red cables to a supply of compressed air. Once the battery was rattled into place, the accordion retracted, sending its robot host scurrying off in search of fresh cargo.
Americans associate electric cars with the luxury of Tesla, the unrivaled conveyance of choice for the Sand Hill Road set. But these newly assembled vehicles, part of a family of SUVs called the Tang that retails from about 240,000 yuan ($35,700), are aimed squarely at middle-class drivers in the world's largest electric vehicle market, China. Their manufacturer, BYD Co., is in turn the No. 1 producer of plug-in vehicles globally, attracting a tiny fraction of the attention of Elon Musk's company while powering, to a significant extent, a transition to electrified mobility that's moving faster in China than in any other country. Founded in Shenzhen in the mid-1990s as a manufacturer of batteries for brick-size cellphones and digital cameras, BYD now has about a quarter-million employees and sells as many as 30,000 pure EVs or plug-in hybrids in China every month, most of them anything but status symbols. Its cheapest model, the e1, starts at 60,000 yuan ($8,950) after subsidies.
BYD's cars and other vehicles—a Tonka set of electric buses, forklifts, utility vans, street sweepers, and garbage trucks—run exclusively on batteries the company manufactures itself. Its sprawling Chinese facilities can produce almost 30 gigawatt-hours of power annually, more than enough to run every iPhone ever made. Last year, BYD opened one of the world's largest battery plants, a 10 million-square-foot facility in Qinghai province, and in February it broke ground on another of similar size. This empire has made a billionaire of its founder and chairman, a former government chemist named Wang Chuanfu. It's also been a boon for another high-net-worth individual, Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought a 10 percent stake in BYD a decade ago.
Even for a nation of superlatives, China has adopted EVs at a stunning pace. Thanks to generous government subsidies and municipal regulations that make owning an internal combustion vehicle in many cities inconvenient, expensive, or both, China accounts for more than half the world's purchases of electric cars. More EVs were sold in Shanghai last year than in Germany, France, or the U.K.; the city of Hangzhou, smallish by Chinese standards, had higher sales than all of Japan. Virtually all of Shenzhen's 20,000 taxis are electric BYDs, compared with fewer than 20 of any make in New York. More than 500,000 electric buses ply Chinese roads, compared with fewer than 1,000 in the U.S.