The Longer Read

If you’re thinking of snapping up a cheap new Chinese electric car there is something you should know…

As the Chinese overtake Tesla for sales of their EVs, Western governments are warning of other threats beyond business. But how worried should we be? Jonathan Margolis examines the claims that we may never be in full control of the new vehicles that will soon be everywhere on our roads

Saturday 04 May 2024 06:00 BST
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Charging ahead: BYD, the world’s biggest selling Chinese EV brand, has already surpassed Tesla in sales
Charging ahead: BYD, the world’s biggest selling Chinese EV brand, has already surpassed Tesla in sales (iStock)

If you’re thinking of buying an electric car in the near future, you may well be tempted away from the Fords, Vauxhalls and VWs of this world by a cheaper, unknown brand from one of hundreds of electric vehicle start-ups coming out of China. Perhaps a neat little Hedgehog E400, a Zotye i-across or even an Ora Funky Cat will be a good buy.

Chinese electric cars are coming, and coming in force. The likes of Zeekr, SAIC, Geely, Great Wall, Fengon, Foton have been in China for years, and will soon become familiar sights on our roads.

It’s not the first time competition in the car market has come from east Asia. In the 1960s, at a time when cars had all-British names like Triumph Herald and Hillman Avenger, imports started coming in from Japan, also with names that seemed odd to us. First came Daihatsu, then Datsun, Mazda, Honda and the one that sounded the funniest of all, Toyota.

BYD unveil their latest EV model called ‘Seal’, now available in the UK
BYD unveil their latest EV model called ‘Seal’, now available in the UK (Keystone/Cyril Zingaro)

In 1969, my dad, ever keen on gadgetry as well as on a bargain, swapped his Vauxhall Victor for a Toyota Crown Estate, laden with gimmicks we had never seen before. Central locking! Electric windows! The friendly chief mechanic at the dealership in Hackney, east London, tried to talk him out of it.

“They are just poor tin-can copies of British cars, made of cheaper materials. The clue is in the name – TOY-ota.” Needless to say, it turned out to be a fantastic car, reliable, fast and so rare that it gathered a small crowd wherever we went. It being a mere 25 years since Japanese POW camps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some of those in the crowds were not well disposed to Japanese cars, either. They were also seen – correctly – as posing a threat to the still big British car industry.

Looking rather nice and packed with gadgetry, Chinese electric cars are clearly going to outsell Western brands on price – some may cost under ?10,000. BYD, the world’s biggest-selling Chinese EV brand, has already surpassed Tesla and makes buses, too. There are already BYD double-deckers in London and elsewhere, albeit they are built in Falkirk.

BYD is responsible for producing the world's first purpose-built fully electric double-deck bus
BYD is responsible for producing the world's first purpose-built fully electric double-deck bus (AP)

But however good today’s BYDs, Geelys, even the cleverly re-imagined MG brand, turn out to be, there’s another huge issue hanging over electric cars from China: are they four-wheeled Trojan horses packed with electronics to spy on myriad aspects of life in the West?

President Biden specifically raised Chinese cars and trucks as a national security threat in February, and secretary of state Antony Blinken raised the matter of China allegedly dumping cheap EVs in the West with the Chinese government last week.

The security “problem” that is being anticipated is that an electric car is always internet-connected, and acts like a giant, data-gobbling mobile phone. A Hong Kong-born reader of a recent New York Times article put the security objections to the new imports eloquently.

Arguing that people were buying a cheap car in exchange for national internet security he wrote: “Don’t any of you remember why we banned Chinese-designed Huawei and ZTE telecommunications equipment from becoming part of our phone and network infrastructure?

“Now imagine thousands of internet-connected Chinese programmed computers in control of your Chinese-made cars roaming the country spying, spreading computer viruses, sending your travel history, maybe even everything you say, Alexa-style, to China.”

“I know that introducing Chinese programmed cars alone won’t overthrow US democracy,” the commentator concluded, “but why deliver one more weapon into the hands of a known hostile power?”

US secretary of state Antony Blinken meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, 26 April
US secretary of state Antony Blinken meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, 26 April (AP)

The prospect of your bargain new Hedgehog being, at the same time as a cheap and eco-friendly way of getting to Sainsbury’s, a danger to freedom is salutary. But, as someone who has worked with Chinese companies, I wonder if this is a real threat – or a moral panic dialled up by the White House as a way for Joe Biden to signal his concern for American carmakers and their Trump-inclined workers?

It’s one thing, I would argue, for the Communist Party to want and require internet-connected cars overseas to be hackable on demand. Even the threat of, say, Beijing being able to zombify half the vehicles and buses in the West at will, can be seen as a weapon. Sun Tzu, of The Art of War fame, advocated winning a war before the fighting starts.

But my experience has been that at an individual level, many, maybe most, Chinese people and Chinese businesses regard the Party and its policy-wonk functionaries as a tiresome nuisance, to be kept happy and out of your hair with the minimum possible effort.

This is not to say they are not patriotic – they overwhelmingly are. The everyday culture and attitude are also more socialist than you might imagine in such an enthusiastically capitalist society as the People’s Republic. But for the people of that republic, I always find making money, closely followed by being with family, getting educated, having fun, dating, eating, arguing and enjoying normal, human pleasures come far, far above seeking global domination for China.

So, while it might be necessary to convince Party apparatchiks that your newest Hedgehog model destined for Britain can be made to grind to a halt in the fast lane of the M6 at a mouse click in Beijing, the detailed programming to enable this may be done without great care or enthusiasm. And is the capacity really there?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk meets with Chinese premier Li Qiang in Beijing
Tesla CEO Elon Musk meets with Chinese premier Li Qiang in Beijing (Xinhua)

There was an illuminating article in Wired this week on how useless, compared to the Russians, China’s attempts at online misinformation against the West have been. From what I have seen from the people working there, especially in the private sector, their hearts are just not in destabilising the West.

That is not to say that Chinese entrepreneurs and engineers in the EV business, state or private, aren’t enthusiastic about electric cars. On the contrary, they have for 20 or more years regarded our backwardness in sustainable transport as pathetic.

A sign of the Chinese evangelism for clean transport is to be found in the entrance hall of BYD’s HQ outside Shenzhen, where a giant screen displays the question, “Where is Noah’s ark that saved mankind?” As well as being good for the planet, which matters greatly to younger Chinese people, the electric car business is also a lot more exciting to be in than most other career options. BYD is an acronym for “Build Your Dreams” and for ambitious young Chinese graduates mindful of the environment, that is their mission.

But would a real China expert agree with my theory that those on the front line, designing and making EVs, programming their technology to spy on and damage the West is a dreary duty worthy of rolled eyes?

The Ora Funky Cat EV car by Great Wall Motor at the Auto Shanghai show, April 2023
The Ora Funky Cat EV car by Great Wall Motor at the Auto Shanghai show, April 2023 (AP)

I contacted Dr Ilaria Mazzocco, the Mandarin-speaking senior fellow in Chinese business and economics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, rather expecting her to disagree. She largely didn’t.

“I went to the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring, and Research Center a few years ago,” said Dr Mazzocco. “They showed me this big screen where they had trackers on every single EV that had been registered in Shanghai and knew exactly where they were.”

“So, they were like, ‘Oh, look, somebody went to Xinjiang’. They were using this data to figure out how people were charging cars and how to be more efficient. But, yes, you could imagine how that data could be used for very different reasons.”

“It’s clear that BYD has a world domination strategy,” she continued. “What’s not clear is that that’s something that’s coming from Beijing. It’s probably coming from the BYD headquarters. It certainly seems to be aligned with what Beijing would like as well.

“However, the sort of regulation in China that expands the power of the Party is not helpful to tech companies trying to become multinationals and convince the rest of the world that they’re just profit-driven normal companies.”

“So in terms of the back-door capabilities, and how enthusiastic Chinese companies might be about it, my suspicion is that they would probably not be super enthusiastic, because it might cost them a lot of market share if it came out. But the real question is, would they do it? And I think the answer, we all know, is probably yes.”

One small thing, however, in my view at least, could render the debate over Chinese electric vehicles obsolete within a few years. That is a better technology coming along, possibly hydrogen, that’s not dependent on mined minerals like lithium, and allows cars that are less like smartphones on wheels.

Whether China will be damaged by such a development or be the inventor of it, of course, remains to be seen.

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