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GM Sees Chinese BEV Program Bearing Fruit in Two Years

The plan calls for exporting its smaller, Chinese-made battery-electric cars to other countries at some point, but probably not initially.

DETROIT – Tim Lee, who heads international operations at General Motors Co., expects the auto maker will sell a battery-electric vehicle in China within two years, but he expresses reservations over the country’s nascent charging infrastructure.

“It’s still on its way. It’s not there,” Lee tells Ward’s of the market’s infrastructure to support electrified vehicles.

China’s booming new-vehicle industry draws tremendous support from its government, which picks and chooses which new-energy ideas it will throw its weight behind. As a result, the country is emerging as a leader in fossil fuel-saving technologies.

But Lee admits much of China’s basic transportation infrastructure remains badly congested, stretching a 30-minute commute to two hours in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. A consumer’s ability to hook up to more-advanced utilities, such as a public charging station for a BEV, is even more remote.

But this does not stem his enthusiasm.

“When China decides to do something, they do move,” Lee says, demonstrated by the central government-fueled spike in new-vehicle sales of 37% between 2009 and 2010. “There is some clear government direction to develop infrastructure.”

Later this year, GM will bring to China its Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle, which with its range-extending internal-combustion engine will help skirt the charging infrastructure dilemma. “With the Volt, you don’t need a lot of infrastructure,” Lee says.

But as a bigger C-segment car based on the Chevy Cruze, the Volt likely will prove too large for most Chinese tastes. “We’re looking at B-segment type vehicles, city-type vehicles,” he says.

“The issues around range and battery costs are pretty significant, so we’ve got some work to do. (Car buyers) are looking for smaller, less than 3-m (10-ft.) vehicles that will be able to navigate the cities.”

GM launched in December a BEV demonstration car using a Chevy Sail B-car. While skeptical such a small car would fit American tastes, Lee says the plan does call for GM to export its Chinese BEVs to other countries at some point, but probably not initially.

Lee says GM is about half a plant behind in terms of capacity to meet demand for its current models built in China. “It will be a constrained availability,” he says of the BEVs, adding, “We want to have opportunity to feed other markets.”

As far as building traditional vehicles in China for export to the U.S., Lee does not rule out the idea but warns against expecting anything soon.

“We’re basically consuming everything in China that we can produce (there), so there isn’t anything obvious on the horizon,” he says. GM sold a record 2.3 million vehicles in the country last year.

“There is absolutely no plan at the moment for us to do any vehicle specifically to export to the U.S. market, but I would not preclude it. You don’t know how the market is going to go.”

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