BYD’s Beta Testers: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, David Sokol

Not every would-be electric car maker can boast such high-profile beta users as China’s BYD. Today in a panel at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, David Sokol, a close advisor to investor Warren Buffett, relayed a subtle reminder of the battery maker-turned-auto developer’s connections: On a recent weekend in Omaha, he said, “Bill Gates, Warren and I drove a model,” testing the range of BYD’s electric car. According to Sokol, the power-trio eked out about 200 miles.
BYD has previously said it’s eying the Los Angeles, Calif. region as a lead market for a planned 2010 launch of the all-electric e6 (the company’s first U.S. offering). “They’re definitely coming to the United States,” said Sokol, who serves on the company’s board of directors in addition to being Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway (s BRKB) subsidiary MidAmerican Energy Holdings. But he said the timing will depend on the balance of how quickly BYD can ramp up its battery production to “sufficient” levels, and how much demand for electric vehicles warrants shifting some of that volume over to vehicle applications, as opposed to energy storage for more established markets.
“The market is ready, I think, for electric vehicles,” said Sokol. But while the technology has come a long way from the golf carts of yore, electric vehicles today are “not where they’ll be 10 years from now.” Many Americans still perceive plug-in cars as a risky buy, he added, explainig that the market for electric vehicles today is large, but not “mass.”
In its home market, BYD has gotten a feel for the scale and challenges of the nascent plug-in vehicle first hand. In the first year after launching its F3DM plug-in hybrid model in China, BYD reportedly sold only “several hundred” of the vehicles, up from less than 100 in the first eight months or so.
But the market’s early stage represents a potential opportunity for a new player with deep pockets and plentiful manufacturing experience like BYD. According to a forecast from research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the fact that legacy car companies in North America, Europe and Japan haven’t yet mastered the technology opens the possibility for automakers such as BYD, as well as Chery, Geely, SAIC and Changan, to leapfrog more established global players.
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Image courtesy of BYD