BYD to Put Down Roots in LA, But Assembly’s Up in the Air

The first fruit of labors by Los Angeles, Calif. officials to bring business to the city from China-based, Warren Buffett-backed BYD has arrived: The battery giant and electric vehicle developer announced with state and L.A. officials Friday that it will set up headquarters in the downtown business district of the city, creating up to 150 new jobs in 2010 and 2011.

BYD expects to take up occupancy in the fourth quarter of this year on a site once used for a car dealership. The building will house offices as well as a research and development center tasked with developing versions of BYD vehicles for the U.S. market based on models that the company already sells in China, according to a press release from the City of Los Angeles. Previously, BYD has identified the LA area as as a lead market for its planned 2010 launch of the all-electric e6 — the company’s first U.S. offering.

This latest move — a coup for LA — comes on the heels of BYD revealing plans to to break into the home energy market with a suite of products including solar panels, battery packs, car charging points, LED lighting systems and energy management devices, CNET reports.

A bigger prize for Los Angeles could be the establishment of a BYD assembly plant in the area. But BYD Chairman Wang Chuan-fu told reporters Friday that the company is waiting to see how the U.S. market shapes up before deciding whether to set up an assembly facility.

“We hope, eventually, to have the car assembly plants and their suppliers come here,” Austin Beutner, economic development chief for Los Angeles and former head of private equity firm Evercore Partners, explained to the Contra Costa Times today.”The key is how for every one job they create, there are five others being created.”

BYD, which plans to show its vehicle lineup at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting this weekend, says it sold nearly 450,000 vehicles in 2009. Sales of the company’s plug-in hybrid model, the F3DM, came in well below the company’s ambitious sales targets for 2009. But in 2010 the company predicts it will sell a total of 700,000 vehicles.

Southern California has been building momentum in recent months toward a significant role in the growing EV ecosystem: the launchpad, where some of the earliest plug-in vehicle models will roll out to customers, and where many of EV-related challenges for the power grid will be figured out.

Plug-in car startups have already put down roots in the area, and are slated to set up manufacturing there. Fisker Automotive, Coda Automotive and Aptera are all headquartered in SoCal. And AC Propulsion, which first developed the prototypical technology that evolved into the Tesla Roadster, calls San Dimas home, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

Tesla Motors, while based in Silicon Valley, will likely assemble its planned Model S in the Long Beach area, making use of facilities once used for the region’s aerospace industry. Coda aims to have the bulk of its upcoming electric sedan built in China, but complete final assembly in Los Angeles County.

It’s not just startups figuring into the SoCal auto economy. Los Angeles serves as the U.S. home base for a slew of Japanese automakers, including Honda, Toyota and Mistubishi. But as the L.A. Economic Development Agency put it in comprehensive 2006 report on the region’s automotive sector, “The auto industry in Los Angeles involves everything except assembling passenger cars.” Plug-in cars could eventually help to fill that gap. But it’s too early to tell if the region can parlay its first deal with BYD into a larger investment, and if BYD’s bet on electric cars for the U.S. market pays off.

Images courtesy of BYD

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