China Economy

Electric cars take the spotlight in China's post-coronavirus stimulus plans

Key Points
  • As China tries to recover from the impact of the coronavirus, making sure its plans for electric vehicles stay on track is one priority.
  • While consumer confidence may take time to recover, government and commercial purchases are expected to drive the electric vehicle market in China this year as well.
  • China's electric vehicle start-ups have pressed ahead with getting production back online and launching new products. Some have also reported growing sales. 
WM Motor's EX5 electric vehicle on display at the Consumer Electronics Show Asia in Shanghai in June 2019.
Arjun Kharpal | CNBC

BEIJING – As China tries to recover from the impact of the coronavirus, making sure its plans for electric vehicles stay on track is one priority.

Soon after signs that the outbreak in China was under control, the central authority and local governments announced stimulus policies aimed at automobiles, particularly new energy vehicles.

In the last few weeks, NEV subsidies and tax break policies set to expire this year were extended by two years to 2022. Battery charging infrastructure – frequently cited as a reason for not buying an electric car – got an injection of 2.7 billion yuan. That would allow for a ten-fold increase in scale versus last year, according to state media.

Such efforts play into national ambitions, and supports the economic contributions of the overall automobile industry. The auto sector accounts for about 10% of China's retail sales, and one-sixth of jobs, according to official figures for 2018 compiled by the Ministry of Commerce. 

As people feel concerned about their incomes, their businesses, major discretionary purchases like buying a new car will no doubt be impacted.
Rupert Mitchell
chief strategy officer at WM Motor

China also aims to increase the share of new energy vehicles in the market to a quarter in the next five years, up from just 5% last year, pointed out Jing Yang, director for corporate research at Fitch Ratings in Shanghai.

"The support of the (new energy vehicle) market is actually a long-term strategy for the central Chinese government," she said, noting that since authorities began nurturing the industry several years ago, an entire value chain of manufacturers has arisen which depend on the growth prospects of the new energy vehicle market.

Tough first quarter

As China battled Covid-19 in the first three months of the year, production of new energy vehicles fell 60.2% from a year ago to 105,000, while sales dropped 56.4% to 114,000 vehicles, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology disclosed at a press conference on April 23.

Overall auto sales declined 42.4% to 3.672 million vehicles, the ministry said.

"In terms of consumer response (to) the virus, the health emergency is being replaced in China to a certain extent with economic uncertainty," Rupert Mitchell, chief strategy officer at Chinese electric car company WM Motor said in an April 15 interview. The company was founded in 2015 by a former Volvo and Geely executive.

"As people feel concerned about their incomes, their businesses, major discretionary purchases like buying a new car will no doubt be impacted. But it's very tough right now to gauge that degree of impact."

VIDEO8:0608:06
Can electric vehicles go mainstream?

Chinese authorities extended a Lunar New Year holiday for more than a week in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19, which emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan. China's economy contracted 6.8% in the first quarter and the official unemployment rate hit a record high of 6.2% in February. While the outbreak has stalled domestically, the coronavirus has since turned into a global pandemic that's infected well over 3 million people and killed at least 247,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

While consumer confidence may take time to recover, government and commercial purchases are expected to drive the electric vehicle market in China this year as well.

"We believe the demand from the institutional buyers will be strong," Fitch's Yang said, pointing to data for 2019 that showed the share of individual purchases fell to 46% from 58.9% a year prior.

She expects car sales in China to decline 10% this year, but said electric vehicle sales may at least not fall as much.

New cars, recovering sales

Meanwhile, China's electric vehicle start-ups have pressed ahead with getting production back online and launching new products. Some have also reported growing sales. 

"We see daily improvements in terms of our daily sales, and that's very encouraging," WM Motors' Mitchell said. "We need that trend to carry into the positive direction several more weeks, more months."

Mitchell said the company could soon have 190 stores open in 110 cities in China, up from 120 stores currently. The company could also benefit from potential government fleet purchases, and commercial car businesses, he added.

For now, WM Motor has "raised some pretty substantial liquidity over the Christmas, New Year period," he said. "Our liquidity position is currently very strong."

Nio, arguably Tesla's most direct competitor in China, said in early April that deliveries rose 11.7% in the first quarter to 3,838 vehicles. The start-up said 69% of all deliveries made from mid-February to mid-March were from word-of-mouth referrals.

The company also forged a strategic agreement with the city of Hefei in late February — when roughly only two-thirds of the country had returned to work. Nio announced progress on that deal on April 29, with news of a forthcoming 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) in capital from strategic investors, which include government-related entities.

On April 27, Alibaba-backed Xpeng launched its P7 sports sedan, which the company claims has the longest range of any electric vehicle in China at 706 kilometers. Deliveries are set to begin in June, with post-subsidy prices of 229,900 yuan to 349,900 yuan — or between $32,462 to $49,404.

VIDEO2:5402:54
China's electric vehicles demand has been surprisingly healthy: Xpeng Motors

Guangzhou-based GAC Nio — a joint venture between the traditional automaker and the start-up — launched its first electric vehicle, Hycan 007, on April 10. Deliveries are set to begin in mid-May, and the deposit for each car is about 20,000 yuan, according to the company. It would not disclose the specific number of orders.

"Right now, I think the new energy vehicle construction and network haven't fully satisfied consumers," Yan Jianrong, GAC Nio's vice president of user operations, said in a phone interview on April 21, according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks.

He said the company revised many parts of the vehicle design in response to user comments, and the recent plunge in oil prices would also affect the relative attractiveness of electric vehicles. While some might consider electric cars for long-term cost savings on fuel, that benefit is now offset by cheaper gasoline, and what some consider to be better designed traditional fuel vehicles.

A challenge for electric vehicles in China has been quality. Start-ups and traditional car manufacturers flooded the sector in an effort to benefit from government subsidies, resulting in many poorly made and cheap models.

This year, some expect the businesses that have survived to produce vehicles that are more attractive to consumers.

But those entrants, especially those on the higher end, will need to compete with Tesla.

Elon Musk's electric car company has already started delivering vehicles made in its Shanghai factory, and China sales reached a record-high of 10,160 in March, according to industry association data cited by Reuters.

"Tesla (is a) stronger brand globally," said Raymond Tsang, a partner at Bain & Company, who is based in Shanghai. "They set a very high bar from both the technology angle. (It) depends on who is going to get scale quickly enough."

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect that the deposit for the Hycan 007 by GAC Nio is about 20,000 yuan.