Skirmishes have surrounded China’s speedy uptake of electric vehicles in the past year, with industry giant BYD reigning supreme but an increasingly large crowd of challengers looking to muscle in on the action. Once-promising startup Xpeng Motors and major automaker Great Wall Motor have been among those to falter in 2022 – and the war is far from over.
Industry observers link BYD’s success to China’s national shift towards electric vehicles, the company’s highly-integrated supply chain across key components, and a rising consumer preference for high-quality, cost-competitive automobiles as recession looms.
Xpeng’s recent setbacks, however, reflect structural weaknesses at the company, including limited competitiveness and low operational efficiency in a crowded marketplace. Now, the risk of falling behind the competition has become real for the Guangzhou-based company.
Even Tesla faces an eroding market share in a highly competitive field, thanks to an onslaught of new models from various domestic rivals. Meanwhile, foreign auto giants from Volkswagen to Ford have long lagged behind Chinese counterparts in transitioning to green energy.
Here, we look at the annual results of China’s EV leaders and attempt to explain the dynamics behind some of the biggest winners and losers of the past year.
Winners and losers
Despite being a bright spot in a slowing auto market, China’s two-year run of huge growth in the EV sector hit unexpectedly fierce competition as it shifted into a lower gear in the second half of 2022.
BYD was the biggest winner of the year, with annual sales of 1.86 million electric cars. The company’s output was more than triple 2021’s figure of around 600,000 units, comfortably exceeding its goal of 1.5 million units.
Tesla was left a distant second. The company’s sales started to slow last year as concern grew about an underlying mismatch between supply and demand. In 2022, the US automaker delivered 439,770 China-made vehicles to local customers, a 37% increase from a year ago and significantly lower than its 50% growth target for overall sales volume.
Besides BYD and Tesla, multiple Chinese EV makers including Nio and Xpeng embarked on 2022 with optimism and ambitious sales targets. However, only a handful managed to hit their goals. Aion (the EV arm of state-owned automaker GAC) and Hozon kept their word by selling around 271,000 and 152,000 EVs respectively last year. Geely’s premium EV brand Zeekr also achieved its goal by delivering just over 71,000 vehicles.
China’s US-listed EV makers mostly underperformed. Nio played tough to secure around 80% of its 150,000-vehicle delivery goal, while Xpeng delivered just over 120,000 units of its 250,000 unit target.
Why BYD dominated the market
In December, when most automakers struggled to protect their market shares by offering generous discounts as the Chinese government phased out EV subsidies, BYD went the opposite way by announcing a price rise of up to RMB 6,000 ($870) across its lineup. The move proved BYD’s role as “price maker” in the mass market, analysts at Jefferies wrote in a Dec. 1 report.
Analysts attributed BYD’s dominance partly to its success in ramping up manufacturing capacity and building a secure, integrated supply chain from batteries to chips. In 2022, when the company tripled its annual car capacity to around 3 million units at its eight manufacturing locations, according to public information gathered by investors, it also more than doubled its battery capacity to 285 gigawatt-hours (GWh), according to estimates by Founder Securities. A company spokesperson declined to comment on the capacity figures.
Also, the automaker has adopted a dual strategy of betting on both all-electrics and plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) as range anxiety continues to be a top concern among local buyers. BYD offers nearly 70 models in major configurations and price categories. This helps the company stand out in a crowded market where many competitors pick a type and limit buyers’ options.
Why Xpeng and Great Wall Motor are losing ground
As China’s EV sales reported nearly 100% annual growth in 2022, Xpeng Motors and Great Wall Motor are among the most surprising names for whom sales growth dipped well below the industry average. The two companies sold 120,757 and 131,834 EV units last year, posting a flat increase of 23% and a 4% decline from a year earlier, respectively.
Multiple factors have put pressure on the two companies, including weaker consumer sentiment and interest rate hikes.
The sales slump at Great Wall Motor indicates a major setback in the company’s slow shift to EVs. In 2022, monthly sales of the company’s Haval H6, once China’s top-selling gas-powered crossover, fell 75% to around 20,000 units from historic highs, as it appeared to be outpaced by popular EV models produced by Tesla (Model Y) and BYD (Song Plus).
Ora, the company’s dedicated EV sub-brand, saw sales decline by 23% year-on-year to 103,996 units. Nevertheless, Great Wall Motor’s management has big plans for 2023 — promising to launch more than 10 EV models, including five new PHEVs under the Haval brand and two new models under the Ora marque.
Xpeng is facing a more complicated external environment, as well as the threat of increased pressure from rivals, said David Zhang, a school dean at Jiangxi New Energy Technology Institute. Not only are sales of big name rivals such as BYD and GAC’s Aion gaining momentum, but younger makers such as Hozon and Leapmotor are increasingly catching up. That’s the broader context behind Xpeng currently restructuring its business, according to Zhang.
Meanwhile, Xpeng is exposed to a potential demand mismatch risk in the short-term, as consumer confidence in vehicle intelligence technologies lags behind ambitious plans to bring self-driving cars to the market, analysts from Zheshang Securities told local media outlet Jiemian.
The Alibaba-backed EV maker has pledged to put more effort into overall car-making after reporting three consecutive months of dropping sales as of October and losses of RMB 6.78 billion ($1 million) for the first three quarters of 2022. It is also dealing with an aging product portfolio and implementing cost control measures to boost efficiency and drive sales, with chief executive He Xiaopeng promising to refocus on the core company after spending some time and energy on emerging businesses such as flying cars.
“We have high expectations for 2023. It’s a game of both competence and persistence. We have winning cards to play the game, and the evolution is making good progress,” a company spokeswoman said when contacted by TechNode.
Trend 1: Bring everything in-house
In-house manufacturing of key components has become one of the biggest trends in China’s EV industry over the past year, as many automakers look for ways to reduce supply chain vulnerability amid persistent chip shortages and the surging cost of battery materials. Among them, BYD is widely seen as a role model for this vertical integration strategy: the automaker builds its own supply chain and performs most of the activities required to bring its vehicles to market.
Already the world’s second-biggest battery maker and a major domestic supplier of power semiconductors for automobiles, BYD is now looking to expand production capacity significantly and accelerate the development of new products. Founder Securities expects BYD’s capacity to increase to 445 GWh-worth of batteries to close the gap with dominant player CATL by the end of 2023. In November, the company abandoned an initial public offering plan for its semiconductor unit as it decided to focus instead on expanding the capacity of a local plant by 80% to reach 360,000 wafers in 2023.
Other major industry players, from state-owned GAC to US-listed Nio, have also been racing to develop battery and semiconductor technologies in-house to ensure a secure supply of the key components. Here are some recent moves and potential developments for the companies heading into 2023:
- On Nov. 18, Svolt, an EV battery startup backed by Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor, filed initial paperwork for a public share sale on Shanghai’s Nasdaq-style Star market. The company is looking to raise RMB 15 billion to build three manufacturing plants with a combined annual capacity of around 106 GWh.
- On Dec. 29, GAC began building an RMB 2.2 billion drivetrain plant in Panyu, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, with mass production to kick off at the beginning of 2024. Initial capacity will enable it to assemble drivetrain systems for 400,000 battery EVs and 100,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles annually by 2025.
- On Dec. 21, Xpeng confirmed that it has set up an RMB 5 billion subsidiary to produce battery packs on its own but will still source battery cells from partners. On Oct. 25, peer Nio made a similar move by forming an RMB 2 billion subsidiary for battery manufacturing, in addition to a $32.8-million research facility for battery development.
- On Oct. 10, Chinese media outlet LatePost reported that both Nio and Xpeng had formed hundred-strong teams to work on chips for autonomous driving, while Li Auto had been hiring chip designers for more fundamental semiconductor components.
Trend 2: Short-term bumps
Analysts have warned about the prospects of a bumpier year for EV makers in 2023, and sure enough, the industry is already seeing some sharp movements. On Jan. 6, Tesla made a big splash by cutting the prices of its China-made vehicles by between 6% and 13.5%, a move that Sun Shaojun, a popular Chinese car blogger, described as kicking off an industry-wide battle for survival in the year ahead.
Sun added that many rivals would probably have to follow suit in the face of such a big promotion by an industry leader. Meanwhile, analysts at Bernstein expect competition to heat up with as many as 126 new battery EV models and 55 new plug-in hybrid models coming to market in 2023, a 40-50% increase on last year.
In anticipation of a post-Covid recession and in light of EV subsidies being scrapped, sales are expected to slow this year. Credit Suisse’s sales forecast of 9.4 million EV sales in China is one of the more bullish on Wall Street, while Bernstein more cautiously holds that 8 million units will be sold in the country this year.
An ongoing growth story
And yet, long-term growth prospects remain buoyant, as demand shifts from policy-led to consumer-driven, Bernstein analysts wrote in a Jan. 5 report. UBS shared the sentiment, expecting the new energy vehicle (NEV) penetration rate, mainly for all-electrics and PHEVs, to grow by 10% this year to reach 37% of all new car sales.
2022 proved to be a big year for Chinese EVs. The central government achieved its goal of EV adoption approaching 25% of total car sales three years ahead of schedule, as industry sales nearly doubled to 6.8 million units. Still, pressure on margins is likely to persist in the near term for smaller companies, which have already been exposed to high battery material costs.
Looking ahead, China has cemented its growth momentum in the global EV race, but industry players should expect short-term sacrifices to hit their profits as they glimpse a bigger and brighter future.