BYD Speeds Up U.S. Launch, Race for 2010 Electric Car Heats Up

byd-logoElectric vehicles may have proven their capacity for speed on the road, but when it comes to bringing plug-in models to market, extended and repeated delays have been the norm. But today word comes from Warren Buffett-backed BYD Auto that it’s actually accelerating its timeline for a U.S. launch. According to the Wall Street Journal, the China-based battery giant and automaker is now finalizing plans to begin selling its all-electric e6 model in the U.S. in 2010 — about a year ahead of schedule.

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For the initial rollout, Chairman Wang Chuanfu tells the Journal that BYD plans to sell “a few hundred” e6 vehicles through a “small number of dealers” in an unnamed region. The vehicle, which BYD says can go up to 249 miles on a full battery charge, is set to carry a price tag of just over $40,000. That puts it in the ballpark of the electric sedan that Southern California-based startup Coda Automotive aims to build in China and sell in low volumes in California next year before a broader launch.

Both BYD and Coda face the challenge of winning over U.S. consumers wary of historically poor safety performance in Chinese vehicles. BYD, however, is in a different league, with its “formidable battery technology,” as Next Up Research put it recently, as well as its revenue from battery sales — earlier this week it struck a major supply deal with SAIC, the first Chinese automaker to sign up for BYD’s lithium-ion batteries. byd-e6-interior

Still, BYD is vaulting into an increasingly crowded race — and pressure has grown to break into the market early on. Just this week, Daimler announced that its electric Smart Fortwo (built with battery technology from Tesla Motors) will enter production in November of this year. And earlier this month, Nissan unveiled the LEAF electric sedan set to deploy in the tens of thousands next year.

According to Southern California Editon’s Jim Kelly, who spoke at the recent Plug-in 2009 conference in Long Beach, Calif., about a dozen “electric-platform vehicles” (including all-electric, plug-in hybrid and extended-range electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt) will become available to consumers between 2010 and 2012 — many of them from brand names that are much more familiar to U.S. consumers than BYD. For BYD to pull ahead in that race, it will have to hit the ground in next year’s deployment with engines blazing.

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