Michael Dunne is CEO of ZoZo Go, a Hong Kong-based advisory firm providing market assessment, executive briefings and negotiation guidance to Chinese and North American auto firms. He is the former president of General Motors Indonesia, past managing director for China at J.D. Power, and author of American Wheels, Chinese Roads.
Every few days I get a call from an automotive executive looking for a straight answer: "When are the Chinese coming?"
In recent days, the questions have become more pointed: "Are the Chinese even coming at all? Won't the Trump tariffs stop them all dead in their tracks?"
But the narrative of Chinese auto firms arriving in the U.S. market is an unusual one, different from how Japanese and Korean companies entered North America. In the 1980s and 1990s, the likes of Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai first exported from home, then built transplants in the U.S. Over time, the automakers were followed by their families of suppliers. Then came r&d centers.
With the Chinese, entry into the U.S. is happening in reverse order. You already can find scores of Chinese suppliers employing tens of thousands of people at manufacturing locations all along the I-75 corridor. And Silicon Valley is dotted with Chinese tech firms developing world-class expertise in electric and autonomous vehicles.
So where are the automakers?
It is true that we see no Chinese cars on American roads, unless you count Volvo. But several Chinese OEMs quietly operate r&d centers in Michigan and San Jose and Los Angeles. The American and Chinese executives working at the design centers are preparing Chinese products for American consumers.
There are other signs that the Chinese are serious. Chinese leaders created a strategic blueprint for the future called Made in China 2025. The goal: dominate key technologies — electric vehicles, autonomous tech, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence. By 2025, China plans to produce 5 million electric cars a year — half the world's expected total.
To lead in tomorrow's technologies, China needed access to breeding grounds for new tech, places such as Silicon Valley, Michigan and Southern Germany. Chinese officials are clearly encouraging their companies to go global.
When the Made in China 2025 policy was unveiled in 2015, I felt that we were at the beginning of an important new chapter. A giant wave of Chinese companies would soon be pouring into the U.S., Europe and other markets.
So my family of five moved from our home in Asia since 1990 to California, and I formed ZoZo Go to enjoy the ride.
I did not have to wait long. By early 2016, my team of researchers had identified 51 Chinese automakers, suppliers and auto-tech firms with operations in America. Today, that number has more than doubled to 105.