Traditional automakers are making China their launch pad for electric vehicles


​For all the opportunities China offers, foreign players are entering an electric vehicle market crowded with domestic brands that already have cars on the ground — not to mention Tesla’s latest push into local production in Shanghai.

​The Chinese electric vehicle industry also faces a 50 percent cut in government subsidies set for June.

Regardless, Chinese brands at the auto show unveiled new services and car sizes in an effort to build out their ecosystem. Many believe having such a suite of products will drive customer loyalty and a competitive edge.

​”In the future, smart cars will become just like smartphones,” He Xiaopeng, CEO of Alibaba-backed Xiaopeng, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

The company, which also goes by Xpeng, unveiled its four-door P7 coupe, which is set for delivery beginning the second quarter of 2020. The company claims it’s the first such vehicle among China’s electric vehicle brands. Pre-orders began Tuesday, although no price was disclosed.​

Also stepping up the competition in sedans was Nio, which on Tuesday showed off its prototype for “et” for the first time.

The company said Tuesday it is also adding a fourth charging option — high-speed super charging stands in public spaces. That’s in addition to power swap stations, lower-speed home-charging units and a fleet of vans providing charging services on the road.

The super charging stands are part of Nio’s efforts to cut costs and build up services while the company waits for sales volumes to increase, co-founder and president Qin Lihong, told CNBC. The company said in its latest earnings call last month it would not reach its original plan for 70 “Nio House” customer clubhouses by the end of this year.

Power swap stations are very efficient and can each theoretically serve 70 cars a day, but because there aren’t enough cars yet, the operating and investment costs are greater than installing super charging stands, Qin said in a Mandarin-language interview translated by CNBC.

“Users don’t care, as long as they can charge their vehicle,” Qin said. “Today, the biggest concern for users, consumers, that keeps them from buying an electric car is mileage anxiety. It’s really not because mileage is insufficient. It’s a feeling that mileage might not be enough.”

​The electric car units of Chinese state-owned manufacturers GAC and BAIC revealed vehicles that claim travel distance of at least 600 kilometers (370 miles) on a single charge. That would be nearly double the range of existing models from competitors.

The electric vehicle industry is still in its early days, and many questions about customer demand and charging infrastructure remain.

But for now, just as foreign-based manufacturers are looking at this segment of the giant Chinese market, companies with their origins in China are looking overseas.

Shanghai-based Aiways launched an electric SUV to Europe at the Geneva International Motor Show earlier this year.

The roughly two-year-old company expects the earliest it could expand to the U.S. would be at the end of next year, Alexander Klose, executive vice president of overseas operations at Aiways, told CNBC. He said the Middle East is another market under consideration.

“We go to Europe because we can, because we think a lot of the others cannot,” Klose said. “Going to Europe requires a certain level of quality that we think we have.”

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