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China could be major player in electric car market

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(Read caption) A Volvo concept car is displayed at an event in Gothenburg, Sweden.

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If you've seen photos of Shanghai or Beijing engulfed in smog, you know that China has room for improvement on the environmental front. But change is coming quickly to the world's most populous country, and nowhere is that more visible than in the auto industry.

Roughly 40 years ago, China began to realize that its highly centralized style of governance and isolationist foreign policies were hampering the country's growth. Since that time--and particularly over the past 20 years--changes have been made, which have led to China's current middle-class boom.

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At the same time, Planet Earth has begun moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. The transition is just beginning to speed up, and China is betting that there's still time to get in on the proverbial ground floor to ensure that its economy keeps on trucking.

The country is doing its best to lure Chinese consumers into energy-efficient cars by offering sweet incentive packages. Hefty tariffs encourage many automakers to build those cars in China rather than importing them from elsewhere.

Chinese entrepreneurs are doing their part, too, by creating attractive, crave-able battery-electric vehicles for the entire world--particularly the second-largest auto market, the U.S. Here are seven new (or new-to-America) electric car brands to watch in the coming years:

1. Atieva: Like Faraday Future (see below), Atieva officially launched in 2015 after setting up a home base in northern California--Menlo Park, to be exact. (Technically speaking, the company was founded in 2007, but back then, it was only planning to be a supplier of electric car components.)

Atieva is owned by China's Beijing Automotive Industry Corp, or BAIC, and it has lots of experience in the field of batteries. Unfortunately, Atieva is rumored to come up short on the skills needed to design and produce actual automobiles, and there's talk that it may merge with Faraday. That wouldn't be especially weird, since entrepreneur Jia Yueting owns sizable stakes in both. 

2. BYD: Unlike most of the companies on this list, BYD isn't a start-up, and it isn't creating vehicles for individual consumers. It's a well-known automaker in China (backed in part by stock market guru Warren Buffet), but on this side of the Pacific, it's set its sights on mass transit. The company has a base of operations in California, where it's currently building electric buses.

3. Faraday Future: Faraday made a big splash last January at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show when it unveiled a 1,000-hp battery-electric supercar, catchily named the FFZERO1 Concept. In April, it broke ground on a $1 billion plant outside Las Vegas, and even though that facility is far from finished, and even though Faraday hasn't begun to produce vehicles, it's already working on a second plant--this one in California.

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Faraday is backed by Jia Yueting, an Elon Musk-y entrepreneur who founded media and technology powerhouse Letv, now known as LeEco. Yueting has loads of cash at his disposal, but he's having a hard time convincing Nevada officials that their $120 million bet on Faraday will pay off. 

4. Geely: Volvo's new-ish owner is planning to launch U.S. sales under its own banner soon. Last we heard, "soon" meant 2016, but as we've entered July, that seems increasingly less likely. Like BYD, Geely is a major force in China, and though it doesn't have the electric credentials of other companies, it's got enough cash to force its way into the field. However, Geely's designs may have to be tweaked to fit the needs of U.S. consumers (not to mention safety regulations set by the U.S. government).

5. Karma Automotive: Launched as Fisker Automotive in 2007, this company was positioned to capitalize on the shift toward energy-efficient vehicles. Unfortunately, though its plug-in hybrid Karma model was pretty to look at, the car had some quality issues. Also, Fisker's access to a $529 million low-interest loan from the U.S. government was frozen when it failed to meet certain benchmarks. Then, Hurricane Sandy happened.

Fisker filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and was bought the following year by China's Wanxiang Group Cos, which also owns the battery company A123. It has since relaunched as Karma Automotive, and its first model--also called the Karma--will be another plug-in hybrid.

6. NEVS: In 2012, a team of Japanese and Chinese investors calling themselves NEVS (shorthand for National Electric Vehicle Sweden) bought Saab from Spyker, which had itself bought Saab from General Motors just a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately, the Japanese group bailed on the deal, leaving China's National Modern Energy Holdings holding the bag. NEVS tried to carry on, boldly promising to revive the quirky brand by 2016. That proved a tad optimistic, and NEVS filed for bankruptcy in 2014.  

The good news is that NEVS managed to find enough money to stay afloat, and it's dedicated itself to "electric vehicles and mobility solutions". The bad news is, it's killed off Saab in the process. There's no word on when we can expect NEVS-branded vehicles, but it seems that by throwing out both the baby and the bathwater, NEVS is preparing to make a fresh start.

7. Volvo: Yes, America's favorite quirky Swedish auto brand is now owned by Geely, which bought it from Ford in 2010. After a rough transitional patch, Volvo's return has picked up speed, and along the way, it's demonstrated interest in plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles. Some of those new models could start reaching consumers within two years.

This article first appeared at The Car Connection.


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