China’s Electric Cars Keep Improving, a Worry for Rivals Elsewhere

Automakers in China are building a new generation of bigger, more technologically advanced and competitive electric cars, threatening to leap further ahead of their global rivals as they step up exports around the world.

The dozens of car companies operating in China plan to put 71 new battery electric models on sale this year. Many new models have taller hoods for a bolder appearance and more storage space. The cars have bigger tires that improve braking. The seats are thicker and more comfortable. The batteries are ever smaller, more powerful and quicker to recharge.

The changes are aimed at making the cars even more appealing for customers in China and more competitive abroad. Along with plug-in hybrid cars, battery electric cars are taking sales away from gasoline-powered cars and their manufacturers.

China is also moving ahead with the technology and regulations for self-driving cars. The authorities approved data security arrangements this week for more capable autonomous vehicles. They approved cars from Tesla, the American electric vehicle company that also builds and sells cars in China, as well as five Chinese manufacturers, including BYD, Tesla’s principal global rival, and Nio, a longtime player in China’s auto sector.

A crowd surrounding executives at the Nio booth at the opening of the Beijing auto show last Thursday.Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

The approvals show the Chinese government’s eagerness to push the development of self-driving vehicles, which are widely seen as central to future competitiveness in the car industry. The technology is more compatible with battery electric cars than with plug-in hybrids or gasoline-powered cars, and Chinese companies are trying to catch up with Tesla, the leader in these systems.

In the United States, Tesla’s so-called Autopilot feature has been the subject of a series of government safety investigations. But in China, regulators and the general public have tended to see the technology as safer than relying on human drivers.

Chinese automakers have been investing heavily in driver-assistance software. An electric car “is becoming a robot on wheels,” said Frank Wu, the vice president of design at Jiyue. The company is a joint venture of Zhejiang Geely, a Chinese automaker, and Baidu, one of China’s main artificial intelligence companies and Tesla’s partner in its self-driving efforts in China.

Better batteries and falling costs underpin China’s push in electric cars. CATL, based in southeastern China and the world’s largest manufacturer of electric car batteries, announced last week at the Beijing auto show that a 10-minute charge of its newest battery would give a range of 370 miles. A 30-minute full charge would give a range of 620 miles, the company said.

A squat office building with a CATL  logo in the upper left corner alongside a river.
CATL offices in Ningde, China. The company announced new E.V. batteries that charge faster and last longer. Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Achieving these distances involves extremely high-precision chemistry and engineering and “putting each nano-particle in the right place,” said Gao Huan, the chief technology officer of CATL’s electric car business.

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