Chinese cars may be coming to America soon, but only as rentals. Hertz recently allied itself with Chinese automaker BYD (“Build Your Dreams”), renting electric cars in the city of Shenzhen. The American company plans to expand the program to other cities in China and, eventually, the U.S.
The car in question, the e6, is a midsize hatchback. It costs the equivalent of $58,000 in China, although, according to the New York Times, it may be cheaper in the United States. It will be ready for sale in the U.S. by the end of the year. “We feel the e6 is clearly ready for the American market,” said Hertz senior vice president Rich Broome, “the performance, style, and size are all very good.” The e6 sports a large, 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack that can go roughly 185 miles between charges, a figure that eclipses the Nissan Leaf’s 80-100-mile range. However, the e6 is a new car from a country that is new to the motor industry, so build quality and reliability are unknown quantities. This car completely lacks anything even resembling style.
The Hertz-BYD partnership has been somewhat successful in China, but it has also been helped by government incentives. “We get a lot of support from the Chinese government,” said Jack Hidary, leader of Hertz’s global EV program. The Shenzhen government fast-tracked the installation of charging stations, something the U.S. government has only done on a limited basis.
In the U.S., releasing taxpayer money for EV charging stations doesn’t make much sense because so few electric vehicles are on the road. The Chinese government has the opposite attitude: it wants people to drive BYD’s cars, so it builds charging stations to stimulate demand. That could be enough to create a new market for cars out of thin air. Michael Austin, vice president of BYD America, admitted that very few Chinese drivers actually rent cars. “The rental market is still very young in China,” he told the Times, “many of the cars are being rented to chauffeurs.” Hertz plans to expand its EV program to Beijing and Shanghai, which offer similar stimulus programs, in the near future.
The lack of a government-funded charging infrastructure in U.S. cities makes the success of an electric car rental program a bit dubious. For the same reason, BYD will only offer the e6 to fleet buyers at its launch. The company loaned a few e6s to the Los Angeles County Housing Authority in 2010 to test the waters. When it does go on sale to individual consumers, the e6 will face stiff competition from the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and electric versions of conventional cars like the Ford Focus. Again, it is unclear how the e6 will do without massive government subsidies. In China, e6 buyers get the equivalent of $19,000 in government rebates. Most Americans won’t buy a Volt because of its high price, even with a $7,500 tax credit. Even if the e6 ends up costing less in the U.S. than it does in China, it still might be too much for most buyers.
Hertz’s EV rental program and the simultaneous launch of a Chinese car in the U.S. could mark a couple of historic firsts, or it could be a double disaster. Either way, it will be a good test of whether electric motoring is really possible without massive government intervention.