TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Given China's lack of public re-charging stations -- and the lack of garages -- it seems implausible for the world's largest car market to spawn significant demand for electric cars.
And yet, it's happening.
Last year, automakers in China produced 84,700 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, up more than fivefold from previous year. And in the first six months of 2015, production is up 320 percent to 83,100 units, according to Yonghe Huang, director of policy research at the China Automotive Technology Center.
Huang spelled out the stunning growth of China's EV market in a presentation today at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars.
To be sure, thick air pollution in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities is spurring the government's sense of urgency. Automakers that produce EVs and plug-in hybrids in China qualify for big sales subsidies. Led by BYD Auto Co., Chinese automakers are investing heavily in new EV models.
But by Western standards, these vehicles do not have cutting-edge technology. Foreign automakers have been noncommittal about their plans to produce EVs in China. In part, that's because foreign automakers fear they will lose control of their intellectual property.
Chinese automakers have been known to copy Western technology.
Western automakers also are not yet convinced there is a strong market in China for relatively high-priced EVs and plug-ins. Affluent Chinese consumers are willing to pay big sums for the Mercedes S class or the BMW 7 series. But it's not at all clear they'd be willing to spend big money on an electric Cadillac ELR or a BMW i3.
Even Elon Musk -- despite his congenital optimism -- felt obligated to shake up his Chinese management after Tesla failed to meet its sales objectives there.
So in the short run, Western automakers are likely to tiptoe around this fast-growing market segment. It's an anomaly, for sure.
If China's bureaucrats want cutting-edge EV technology, they'll have to offer ironclad guarantees about the sanctity of intellectual property. And that hasn't happened yet.