The list of China-produced products that have been recalled – lead-painted toys, tainted toothpaste, contaminated pet food, and other goods – have made U.S. consumers increasingly leery about the safety and quality of goods made in China. That poses quite a challenge to the automakers planning to sell China-made vehicles in America.
“Everyone’s watching us,” said William Pollack, Chairman and CEO of China America Cooperative Automotive (), a company that was founded three years ago to help Chinese automakers come to North America. The spotlight will get even more intense later this year when Chamco expects to bring a China-made pickup truck and a sport utility vehicle – made by Hebei Zhongxing Automobile Company () – to the U.S. marketplace. So far, 75 dealers across the U.S. have signed on to sell the four-door pickup truck and the midsize SUV.
Pollack knows that the first China-made vehicles on U.S. soil will “set the stage for all other Chinese manufacturers,” which underscores his stance that Chamco-imported vehicles must possess style, value, and quality. Chamco inspectors will be in ZX Auto plants to monitor 187 critical assembly points. If any vehicle does not meet the quality standard, “it cannot be shipped,” said Pollack, adding that the vehicles “will have a four- or five-star crash test rating when we come to the U.S.”
The route to achieving U.S. approval for Chamco-imported vehicles relies on the staff at a 150,000-ft2 () Anaheim, CA R&D facility stocked with engine and chassis dynamometers, calibration tools, and other equipment. “The facility is an A-to-Z one-stop shop for certification and meeting marketplace requirements in general,” said Steve Saleen, CEO of ZX Automobile Company North America, the importing subsidiary of Chamco, and the name behind SMS Limited, an automotive design, engineering, testing and certification company.
Chinese automaker Changfeng displayed vehicles at the 2007 and 2008 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. “We participate in this show not only to showcase our model lineups, but more importantly, to listen to the voice of our new customers in the North American market. We've commit ourselves to satisfy the customers with safe, environment-friendly products,” JianXin Li, Chairman of the Changfeng Group said in a prepared speech delivered during press days at the 2008 NAIAS. Details about Changfeng’s plans for North America, according to Li, will be revealed at the 2009 Detroit show.
BYD Auto executives announced their sell-in-America ambitions at this year’s Detroit auto show press days. The vehicles with an eventual U.S. destination were developed with input from 5000 BYD engineers assigned to battery research. The automaker’s dual-mode (DM) sedans have a 1.0-L engine, 75-kW permanent magnet synchronous motor, and a "ferrous" battery pack stowed under the vehicle carriage.
“BYD’s ferrous battery is a unique solution that most closely resembles iron phosphate battery technology, but BYD has overcome some of the hurdles – such as cycle-life problems and cell efficiency – that other companies have found troublesome,” said Micheal Austin, Vice President of BYD America. A 10-minute charge via a rapid charging station would restore the battery pack to a 50% charge state, while a nine-hour charge via a 110-V plug-in would restore 100% battery power, according to Austin. This fall, the F6DM car launches in China, but the hybrid vehicle is expected to reach U.S. shores in three to five years.
As a worldwide manufacturer of rechargeable batteries for consumer goods, BYD moved into the vehicle-producing foray in 2003 with the acquisition of the Tsinchuan Automobile Company. With assembly plants in Xian and Shenzhen capable of producing 300,000 units annually as well as an R&D and testing center in Shanghai, BYD Auto executives believe the company is ready to grow internationally. ”We plan to add 1000 engineers every year for 10 years. We will hire more engineers so that we will have a reserve of engineers when we go overseas,” Yu-bo Lian, Chief Technology Officer of BYD Auto, said through a translator.
China’s largest privately owned automaker is also going on a hiring spree. At the R&D center “right now we have 800 people and that will go to 1200,” said Frank Zhao, Chief Technology Officer of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group and President of Zhejiang Geely Automotive R&D Center. Although noncommittal about a U.S. entry timetable, Zhao said, “We are preparing.” Beyond the new hires, Geely – which sold 30,000 of its 240,000 total sales volume in 2007 outside China – will have nine manufacturing plants in China by the end of 2008. The automaker also has assembly plants in Russia and Indonesia.
Geely has eight vehicle platforms, seven engine platforms, as well as manual and automatic transmission variants. The company’s innovations portfolio includes a “tire blow-out and brake system,” Zhao said, noting the multi-patented technology is “in production on a small fleet of specialty vehicles, like police cars.” Geely’s R&D staff is fine-tuning three hybrid-electric vehicle programs (ranging from mild to full hybrid). “An Electro-Equal-Balance (EEB) system is one thing we’re working on,” said Zhao.
Many of China’s automakers are pursing advanced technology. “Virtually every Chinese OEM we deal with is interested in developing or has active alternative-powertrain programs at present,” said Jeffrey Owens, Delphi’s President for Electronics & Safety with global responsibility for 19 manufacturing and 31 engineering resource centers.
The chase for innovative technology by Chinese companies continues amid recurring accusations of ‘copycat’ engineering. “From Changfeng’s perspective, we have a very good record, and we have not been involved in any rights infringement. We have lots of patents,” Li said through a translator, adding, “We should respect intellectual property, but in learning from each other (that) should not be an infringement of rights."