In China, a major auto show is returning to a country that has gone electric

A hall showcasing electric vehicles made by Nio, XPeng Motors, Zeekr and dozens of other Chinese companies was mobbed with visitors. A nearby area full of petrol-powered cars of foreign brands barely got a second glance from anyone.

At the same event, Volkswagen, which competes with Toyota to be the world’s largest seller of cars with internal combustion engines, made a bold forecast: Within two years, half of the cars sold in China, the world’s largest car market, will be electric, up from just 6 percent in 2020.

The theme at the Shanghai Motor Show this week was clear. Electric cars are here to stay, and Chinese automakers are leading the field.

Silvio Pietro Angori, managing director and CEO of Pininfarina in Italy, a nearly century-old car design company, said the global industry was not going back.

The internal combustion engine, he said, “is done, it’s gone, it no longer exists.”

The Shanghai auto show is one of the world’s largest, and the first of its size in China since 2019. During the pandemic, when China’s borders were sealed due to “zero Covid” precautions, the auto industry was quietly transformed and the market share of foreign companies shrank. Today, half of the cars sold in Shanghai itself are already electric.

Brian Gu, the president and vice chairman of Xpeng, said his company planned to reduce the cost of building a powertrain — primarily the battery and the electric motor — by 25 percent by the end of the year. Powertrains, especially the batteries, make up about two-fifths of Xpeng’s total cost to build an electric car.

Ashwani Gupta, Chief Operating Officer of Nissan, one-opped Xpeng, said the company’s latest design will cut powertrain costs by 30 percent. Shohei Yamazaki, chairman of Nissan’s China investment subsidiary, said Nissan would rely heavily on Chinese suppliers.

“Price competition in China is very fierce right now,” he said.

Chinese brands have adopted unusual electric car designs while foreign companies and their Chinese joint ventures have played it safe. The wheels are almost in the corners of the Chinese brand cars, an architecture that also provides more space for batteries under the floor in the middle. Nio and Xpeng have opted for sleek designs, while Changan, based in western China, makes cars so rectangular they look faintly cubist.

“Some of it comes from the freedom from heritage,” said Felix Kilbertus, the creative chief at Pininfarina.

Great Wall, a Chinese sports utility vehicle manufacturer, has a new electric car brand, Ora, aimed at women. It named car models for cats, in part to appeal to lovers of the Hello Kitty brand. It has an electric car that strongly resembles a Volkswagen Beetle.

The main market for electric cars so far is China – electric cars made up a quarter of China’s market last year, compared to less than 6 percent in the US.

Most of the cars on display at the auto show use lithium batteries, the current industry standard, although companies are developing vehicles that run entirely or partially on batteries made of sodium.

Currently there is an abundance of lithium batteries, but long term many in the industry believe sodium could become a viable alternative or supplement to lithium as a key ingredient in EV batteries. Firstly, the production of sodium batteries would be better for the climate.

Toyota’s chief scientist, Gill Pratt, claimed at a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January that overall greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced more by replacing 90 petrol cars with hybrids than by using the same amount of scarce lithium to build a battery-electric car .

“If you think about the total amount of lithium that the world has, the key is let’s use it where it does the most good,” he said.

Toyota has a vested interest in questioning the availability of lithium. It owns many key patents for hybrid cars, and has prioritized them over all-electric cars that require far more lithium. American and European car manufacturers such as Ford Motor and Volkswagen, as well as most Chinese car manufacturers, are still betting on battery electric cars.

Prototype cars with all-sodium batteries revealed in recent weeks by Chinese domestic automakers and battery manufacturers have been low-budget microcars. One of them, Sihao Huaxianzi of JAC Motors, in collaboration with HiNA, a sodium battery startup, is designed for a top speed of 75 miles per hour.

Pulkit Khurana, one of the founders of Battery Smart, an Indian company that supplies batteries for three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, expressed doubt that any technology, including sodium, would soon replace conventional lithium batteries. And as the price of lithium has fallen by two-thirds since November, the price of lithium batteries is likely to drop significantly, he said.

A mid-size car or SUV would have enough room for a much larger sodium battery than the affordable subcompacts that Chinese manufacturers initially build. Another possibility is to use a combination of sodium and lithium cells in a single car battery.

Using an artificial intelligence computer program, China’s CATL, the world’s largest maker of electric car batteries, has figured out the complex electronics and programming for battery packs with some lithium cells and some sodium cells, said Huang Qisen, the vice dean of the company’s research institute. .

CATL – the company’s full name is Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. – said at the auto show that it would create sodium battery cars in collaboration with Chery, a Chinese automaker that is strongest in producing low-cost subcompacts. But both companies declined to provide any details.

Switching to sodium could solve one of the biggest problems with lithium batteries, which provide much less power in sub-zero temperatures.

Because of chemical differences between sodium and lithium, a sodium battery loses less than a tenth of its power at very cold temperatures, according to battery chemistry experts.

“It’s promising,” said Ouyang Chuying, president of research and development at CATL. “Sodium has no resource limit.”

Li you contributed research. Jack Ewing contributed reporting from New York.

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