China’s auto exports accelerate

International Business News  –  In late July, BYD officially announced its entry into the Japanese passenger car market, and plans to sell three electric models next year.

In 2021, the total sales of electric vehicles in Japan will be less than 20,000, accounting for only 0.45%. In contrast, the sales of new energy vehicles in China last year exceeded 3.5 million. Although “seeking far away”, the outside world believes that BYD’s move is more symbolic. After all, in the era of fuel vehicles, it is almost unimaginable for Chinese car companies to export to Japan. Even last year, the TOP10 list of Japan’s best-selling car companies were all Japanese brands, and Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen could hardly find opportunities in Japan.

BYD’s landing in the Japanese passenger car market is more like a microcosm of the current Chinese car companies going overseas, that is, relying on the advantages of new energy vehicles, “upward” the traditional automobile power market, such an earlier and more successful case is in Europe.

Taking new energy vehicles as a breakthrough, the pattern of Chinese cars going overseas is quietly changing.

Why export growth against the trend?

In the first half of this year, the export of 1.128 million vehicles, an increase of 47.1 percent year-on-year. Among them, the export of 249,000 units in June, an increase of 1.8%, up 57.4% year-on-year. This is the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (hereinafter referred to as CAAM) statistics of auto exports “report card”, not easy because this is the premise of 2021 auto export data has increased significantly, once again hit a record high.

In 2021, China will export 2.015 million cars, exceeding 2 million for the first time. China has been the world’s largest car consumer for many years, and last year’s export figures make China the third largest car exporter after Japan and Germany, and it seems to be on the verge of touching the threshold of the world’s largest car exporter.

It is important to know that compared to the 2020 export figure of 1.06 million units, the export figure for 2021 has nearly doubled. While China’s auto exports have hovered around 1 million units for many years, as early as 2012, China’s auto exports had exceeded 1 million units, in the memory of Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the Passenger Vehicle Market Information Joint Association, “before 2020, China’s auto exports did not happen to significantly improve.” The export growth rate in 2021 is really surprising.

Equally surprising is the performance of Chinese car companies in overseas markets. 2021, SAIC, which ranks first among car companies with nearly 600,000 exports, had set a target of reaching 1.5 million units in overseas market sales by 2025, which is expected to reach more than 800,000 units this year and exceed 1 million units next year. In a media exchange meeting in mid-July, SAIC International’s deputy general manager Zhao Aimin confessed that the annual growth from 2019 to 2022 is doubled, “I didn’t expect it to grow so fast in these three years”.

In line with Zhao Aimin’s feelings, China’s auto exports are still growing rapidly this year. As for the reasons for the sudden windfall in China’s auto export market, several interviewees agreed that there is no short term factor like the epidemic. “For the same reason that China’s overall exports grew rapidly in 2021, foreign supply chains were dragged down by the epidemic and Chinese production capacity filled some of the demand gap.” Chen Shihua, deputy secretary general of the CCA, explained to China Newsweek.

“The epidemic has led to tight supply and price increases in overseas markets, especially in Europe and the United States, while Chinese car supply and prices are relatively stable and competitive.” Cui Dongshu believes that a large part of the supply tension in the European and American markets comes from supply chain issues such as a shortage of car gauge chips. “Chinese car companies’ passenger car inventories reached 3.1 million units at the end of July and 2.49 million units in 2021 when inventories are lower, with better inventory protection. In contrast, the U.S. had nearly 3.8 million units in inventory at the beginning of 2021, but by the end of that year, only 1.1 million units remained, leading to an overall increase in new and used car prices. Some car companies are also shrinking their overseas strategies as a result of supply chain pressure.”

And just as Ford and GM withdrew from markets outside North America and China, and Nissan withdrew from Europe and South Korea, the choice of domestic car companies to expand their overseas markets coincided with the choice of overseas car companies to shrink their business footprints.

This choice is related to the decline in Chinese auto sales in 2018. “In recent years, the domestic market growth rate has stepped into a slow or even declining trend, and competition is fierce, so domestic car companies naturally want to explore overseas markets. In fact, not only domestic car companies, some joint venture car companies originally built factories in China only targeting the domestic market, and now they are also considering exploring overseas markets.” In Chen Shihua’s view, the strategic adjustment of car companies is the reason to seize the opportunity brought by the epidemic.

In fact, the domestic auto industry chain has also suffered a huge impact this year. Since the first quarter, the downward pressure on the auto consumer market has increased. in April, the auto consumer market ended its growth trend from January to March due to the multiple impacts of logistics, chips, and the new crown pneumonia epidemic. “The supply chain of the automotive industry chain has experienced the harshest test ever, with some enterprises shutting down production, logistics and transportation being greatly hindered, and production and supply capacity plummeting. At the same time, affected by the epidemic, consumption capacity and confidence dropped significantly, the industry’s task of stabilizing growth is very difficult.” On May 11, Chen Shihua said at an information conference of the China Automobile Association.

Although there is still uncertainty about China’s auto exports in the post-epidemic era, Cui Dongshu believes that under the impact of the epidemic, a short-term factor, the competitiveness of Chinese cars is reflected and the short-term benefits can be transformed into long-term advantages.

To a considerable extent, such competitiveness is reflected in China’s new energy vehicles. The CCA statistics show that the first half of this year, exports of new energy vehicles 202,000 units, an increase of 1.3 times, accounting for 16.6 percent. 2020 and 2021 exports of new energy vehicles were 70,000 and 310,000 units.

The increment brought by Tesla is crucial, with its Shanghai super factory delivering 480,000 cars in 2021, in addition to supplying China’s domestic market, about one-third of the cars are exported. 163,000 units are exported, contributing to half of China’s new energy vehicle exports in 2021.

According to the CCA, Tesla’s 2021 export volume ranked third among car companies, the remaining top five car companies were SAIC, Chery, Changan and Dongfeng. 746,500 cars were exported from January to May 2022, of which SAIC’s car sales were 226,200, accounting for the highest percentage, followed by Chery Group’s car sales, which reached 111,400, and Tesla exported 96,200 units.

“In the car export volume statistics, the return part is also calculated in it, such as Tesla’s contribution to China’s new energy vehicle exports is not a small weight, and its use of China as a production base, radiation surrounding countries and regions.” A senior analyst in the automotive industry told reporters that even if the Tesla export volume is removed, the growth rate of new energy vehicle exports is still rapid.

For the future trend of auto exports, institutions are still optimistic. CAC pointed out that “although the Russia-Ukraine conflict has affected some export markets, but according to what we know from the enterprises, most of them currently have good overseas orders, and there is no sign of falling back.” According to Chen Shihua’s estimation, this year’s exports again exceeded 2 million units is already a probable event.

Of course, the significance of new energy vehicle exports is not only reflected in pushing up export figures.

“The degree of internationalization of China’s auto industry is far from enough, exports for many years, at the moment is not ‘start’, but the export scale is always small, only in recent years car companies began to focus on the international market.” Chen Shihua believes that previously, Chinese car companies overseas market scale is too small, car exports perennially maintained at the level of 1 million units, and scattered to a number of countries and regions.

After China’s accession to the WTO, auto exports also grew rapidly, with China’s vehicle exports almost doubling every year from 2002 to 2007, rising from 20,000 to 613,000 units in five years. “Chinese auto exports grew rapidly for a time before 2008, but have been hit since 2008, when Russia, an important export destination, took measures such as taxation.” Cui Dongshu recalled that China’s auto exports were in the “1.0 era”, which was a trade export type with weak product competitiveness, coupled with an unfriendly international trade environment and frequent containment measures by some major export destinations.

In the “1.0 era”, Chinese car companies relied more on the cost-performance advantage to enter the markets of developing countries, but the emergence of new energy vehicles is changing this trend.

Behind the European market

According to Cui Dongshu’s statistics based on customs data, the export of new energy passenger cars in the first half of this year, the Western European market accounted for 34%, and Belgium was the country that imported the largest number of new energy vehicles from China in the first half.

Along with the transformation of new energy vehicles, the export destinations and target markets of Chinese car companies are also changing. According to the CCA, in terms of structure, China exports to all six continents, with Asia being the top export market, accounting for 33.5% of the overall export volume. The market share of domestic vehicles in Asia, Europe and North America is generally not higher than 6 percent, while the market share in South America and Oceania is slightly higher than 10 percent, but the overall market share is not high. In contrast, the market share in Africa far exceeds the above markets and is rising year by year, from 13.4% to 21.5% from 2018 to 2021.

Although exports to the Asian market still topped the list with 716,000 vehicles among the more than 2 million vehicles to be exported in 2021, exports to the European market already ranked second with 523,000 units, accounting for nearly 25%, a significant increase compared to 121,000 and 170,000 units in 2019 and 2020, while in 2018, Chinese car companies exported to the European market was only 67,000 units, accounting for less than 6 percent.

“Originally exported to destinations mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, now Chinese car companies’ new energy vehicles are also competitive in the European market.” Chen Shihua said, although the proportion of new energy vehicles in the total exports is limited, but obviously have more opportunities to enter the market of developed countries, on the contrary, fuel cars want to enter such a market is still more difficult.

Europe, is becoming an important export destination for China’s new energy vehicles. In the second half of 2019, SAIC Group began to layout and enter the European mainland market, and in 2020 to achieve sales of more than 7,000 units of a single model, Zhao Aimin confessed, “We did not expect ourselves, but we were still quite happy… This year, we can achieve a sales target of 60,000 or even 70,000 units in mainland Europe, and if we add the UK, Europe will become our If we add the UK, Europe will become our first overseas regional market of 100,000 units.” Zhao Aimin said that in the future, the share of developed economies in the export structure will increase significantly.

In response to China Newsweek, BAIC Polefox said that the European market is a strategic market second only to China, and that it is a place where Polefox must go. From the new energy car brands of traditional car companies to the new power companies, they are all landing in the European market in various forms, but it is not easy to “attack” the European market.

Last April Beiqi Polefox released its international strategy and launched a partner recruitment in August, hoping to develop the local market with the power of European dealers. In the first half of this year, Xiaopeng opened four directly-managed stores in Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, and announced that it would increase investment in the international market in the last two years. in October 2021, Azera opened its first directly-managed store in Europe in Oslo, the capital of Norway, and began delivering its flagship SUV model ES8 to users, having planned to expand its products and services to Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark in 2022.

Although there are many car companies shouting slogans to enter the European market, the actual sales and layout are still in the “testing water” stage.

Polar Fox responded to reporters that, since the end of last year, due to capacity problems caused by the supply chain, international interaction problems caused by the epidemic, and changes in the political situation on the European continent, the pace of action of the plan to enter the European market has made adaptive adjustments, but the direction is certain.

According to the automotive data platform Carsalesbase, in 2021, Peng Motors will sell 486 units in the European market. in late June, Peng Motors had announced that reservations for the new electric sedan P5 in four European countries had been suspended due to supply chain impacts and that previous orders could not be delivered on schedule. And as of the end of July, Azera entered the European market with sales of 750 units, including 200 units in 2021.

“Several major car companies are doing well with their own brands.” Cui Dongshu said that in contrast, some of the new car makers are actually exporting very little, with monthly sales staying more in the tens or hundreds of units in the Norwegian market, where several companies have landed, for example.

“Some regions in Europe, such as northern Europe, radical environmental policies, new energy vehicle penetration rate is increasing, but in fact, these countries car market is not large, and Germany and France and other continental mainstream market size can not be compared, some Chinese car companies to enter these markets is not looking at the market itself, but drunkenness, more important to enter the European market to the brand value brought about by the promotion. ” An automotive industry analyst told reporters that this provides good story material to the capital market on the one hand, and on the other hand to enhance the added value of the brand when it comes to domestic sales. Because of the high cost of entry into overseas markets and the need to cultivate for many years, the immediate effect is not good from a business perspective.

“European consumers are relatively pragmatic and have greater demand for small and medium-sized electric vehicles, but instead have limited demand for large, high-end electric vehicles, so the new car makers may still need to find a breakthrough point for export to Europe, and in fact, European consumers can’t afford very expensive cars.” Cui Dongshu thinks, still should deep understanding of local consumer preferences, for example, some large size of the electric car may consume high electricity, by European consumers do not think environmentally friendly, Tesla 100 kilometers of electricity consumption of 12 degrees, while some Chinese car companies of electric cars 100 kilometers of electricity consumption as high as 14 or 15 degrees, or even 17 or 18 degrees, so should also do more basic work in electrification, in addition to the European market to put smaller models.

Obviously, it will take time for Chinese car brands to gain the recognition of the European market.

“The car belongs to the top electromechanical products, users often have a strong inertia thinking about the brand, and winning trust will be a slow process. Therefore, although the level of Chinese cars itself is progressing rapidly, but because the brand is a ‘new face’, cultivating users has to pay a lot of money and time costs, and it may take 5 to 10 years to really open a market.” Auto analyst Zhong Shi said that Chinese fuel cars have not previously been successful in developed markets such as Europe and the United States, the concept of Chinese cars is almost blank, even now playing the signboard of new energy vehicles will not be suddenly accepted.

In the European market, the highest-selling Chinese brand is currently SAIC MG, with record sales of more than 4,600 units in a single month in mainland Europe in June this year. But MG is originally a British brand. “MG previously had a more mature channel in the UK, SAIC hopes to use it to load fuel and new energy vehicles to open the UK market after the blood transfusion to save the MG brand, and then penetrate the market in Commonwealth countries if it can succeed.” Zhong Shi analysis said.

In the 1990s, Zhong Shi served in the Beijing office of the Korean car company, responsible for developing the Chinese market. “At that time, it was relatively easy for foreign car brands to enter China because China was a shortage economy and consumers generally had weak purchasing power at that time, so as long as the products had price advantages and Chinese consumers generally had ‘superstition’ about foreign brands at that time, they could open the market relatively easily. On the contrary, Chinese car brands want to enter the developed markets of Europe and the United States is more difficult.” Zhong Shi believes.

Establishing brand awareness is only one of the thresholds that Chinese car companies need to cross to go abroad.

Car companies go abroad, not only to sell cars

Chen Shihua believes that car companies go abroad in the selection of target markets, not “pepper spray”, should first refine the market of a country or region. “The export of cars is actually very simple, but whether the support is sound is the problem, such as whether there is a sound after-sales service system in the local, if the support is not sound enough, the overall image of Chinese car companies will cause harm.”

This includes the construction of new energy vehicle charging and power exchange facilities. When entering the Norwegian market, Azera synchronized its local power exchange service, having planned to build 20 second-generation exchange stations by the end of 2022, but only one exchange station is currently in operation, Azera President Qin Lihong said in early July, underestimating the actual difficulty in 2021 and not completing the plan, with Europe still in the pilot phase.

In Zhao Aimin’s view, sales is just selling the product, but the long process from domestic production to overseas sales requires building many capabilities. Just one aspect of overseas sales involves the construction of local sales networks for car companies.

When entering overseas markets, car companies generally choose either the direct sales or distribution model, both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Azure is representative of the direct sales model, opening direct stores in Europe, but is considered to have a large upfront investment, while the distribution model, which relies more on local dealers, is considered difficult to build brand image.

“Some of the new car makers are more customized in the country, while some traditional car companies rely more on agents, so there may be opportunities for each.” Chen Shihua said.

“From the sales side, our layout has covered all of Europe, whether it is a high threshold, or a low threshold, comprehensive coverage.” Zhao Aimin said that the sales model will be more flexible, and will develop a corresponding sales model according to the characteristics of each country’s market, but also according to the size of the market’s capacity and market characteristics to make adaptations. According to the degree of control of the market for the design of sales methods, some may need OEM (OEM mode) control a little higher, some markets may need to be more hands-off.

Zhao Aimin specifically said, for example, that consumers in each region have different brand loyalty, German consumers may be more brand loyalty, such as the original is to drive a certain brand of car, the next one may still be the same brand. Therefore in Germany and France will take a different sales model, in France the dealership model breakthrough is relatively fast, quickly laid out 100 dealers, pushing up sales, while in Germany to adopt a completely new direct model, ground push is very hard, because initially no one believes in the MG brand. “The layout in China mainly relies on burning money, but overseas must be very rational, you have to have strong control ability. But if you are still on track in Germany and go to those dealers and agents of BBA, MG is such a weak brand, how will they pay attention?”

“For Chinese car companies, the choice of market should take into account the local political and economic policies, such as environmental policies, whether it is suitable for the layout of electric vehicle enterprises.” Cui Dongshu said that car companies have to do much more than localization efforts, for example, they also need to examine the local language environment, which may involve whether some intelligent equipment can reach a better level of interaction in the local area, which happens to be the advantage of Chinese car companies.

Earlier this year, Volkswagen Group union president Daniela Cavallo said, “For German drivers, they may not value the integration of functions such as karaoke in the center control screen. But in China, if VW can’t offer these features, it will disappoint some other consumers.” Her statement was in response to the fact that the five models of the VW ID. series achieved only 70,000 sales last year, failing to meet previous expectations of 80,000-100,000 units, but was also quickly perceived as not understanding the needs of Chinese consumers for new energy vehicles.

On the contrary, the challenge of “localization” for Chinese car companies going abroad has actually started from the product design stage.

Recently, SAIC Group started to launch MG “global car” to Europe – MG4 ELECTRIC, the first step will focus on breaking through the right-hand drive of the British market and the left-hand drive of the German market. Zhao Aimin said, “Now some Chinese industry partners are scrambling to enter the European market, and they have the same idea as we did at the beginning, which is to launch whatever products are available first.” The MG “Global Car” is seen as SAIC’s first model to be launched for the European market.

“At the beginning of the product design, the stylist was a European. At that time we joked that during the epidemic, we needed a styling review but couldn’t get out, so we proposed to go to a bar street to find some foreigners in China to see the car. Later, we asked European foreigners to review the car online through online methods, and all these evaluation processes were done, more than once.” Zhao Aimin introduced.

“How do we do the localization in overseas markets? In fact, we respect our customers very much and fully understand what they think, although these other companies can also do, but we are very respectful of local market habits in every aspect such as styling, interior, range and so on.” Zhao Aimin said, for example, “For example, European consumers prefer simple interiors, China is more in pursuit of luxury and comfort of the interior, the European requirements for handling is very high, etc. The whole process is non-stop discussion, compromise finally reached agreement, can not reach agreement can be staggered, with different configurations to meet the needs of different markets.”

In addition to SAIC MG, SAIC Datsun is another mainstay of SAIC’s sales to Europe and other developed markets. SAIC Datsun introduced to China Newsweek that the EV90, a commercial vehicle that targets the market in the Australian and New Zealand commercial vehicle markets, is precisely based on the C2B user co-creation customization model, which allows for a wealth of customization options for customer needs, whether in terms of model, vehicle length, vehicle height, etc. The EV90 can be customized. In addition, for the personalized demand of commercial vehicle customers for power, EV90 can be customized with different power combinations to meet the real scenario needs of customers in the logistics industry.

“Internationalization is a new business for Chinese car companies, involving a series of issues such as whether they understand the culture of the target market, how international the team itself is, and how to hire local employees.” Zhong Shi said that objectively speaking, Chinese auto products have enough bottom line, but it is still tough to break through the cultural and market barriers.

SAIC International has deployed more than 30 cadres from within the group who can deal with foreigners to fill the overseas marketing team, and each overseas company has an expatriate general manager and expatriate personnel in key positions, and all of them can communicate with locals fluently in different languages.

Comprehensive layout in order to compete for dominance

Some auto industry insiders lamented to reporters that after the release of the 2021 export data, the outside world is keen to focus on the ranking of China’s auto exports, “such a ranking is not very meaningful, we can all clearly perceive the gap between China and traditional auto powerhouses in the international market competitiveness.”

“VW’s annual production capacity in China alone is up to millions of vehicles, while China’s annual export volume is just over two million vehicles, from the German and Japanese auto industries, there is indeed a big gap. Product competitiveness is improving, but there is still a long way to go before the brand image is really established.” Chen Shihua said.

The opportunity brought to China’s auto industry by new energy vehicles is considered similar to the opportunity faced by the Japanese auto industry in the 1970s.

From 1960 to 1970 was the start of the Japanese auto industry, Toyota and some other Japanese car companies began to try to expand overseas markets such as the United States, but the results were not good. It was not until the oil crisis in 1973 and the tightening of U.S. emissions policies in 1975 that Japanese automakers took advantage of technological changes to expand into the U.S. market with fuel-saving technologies. Japanese passenger car exports to the U.S. jumped from 712,000 units in 1975 to 1.82 million units in 1980.

Cui Dongshu believes that the opportunities facing Chinese automakers today are even greater than those faced by Japanese automakers in the 1970s. “In the context of the oil crisis, high oil prices have ushered in development opportunities for Japanese automakers, but the essence is still homogeneous competition, while Chinese automakers’ current strengths in electric vehicles are more geared toward differentiated competition.”

Of course, a variable from Europe and other developed countries, regional markets, environmental policies.

“The new energy vehicle market is policy-oriented, the European market is no exception, before some European countries to give a clear timetable for the ban on combustion, forcing car companies to transform. But with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict led to Europe is facing an energy crisis, there is sufficient energy has become the biggest problem in front of you, rather than clean energy transition. Therefore the international market, especially in developed markets, new energy vehicles have not exploded in growth.” Zhong said, in fact, like the United States such as the traditional automotive powerhouse, the government did not force companies to transform, because traditional car companies still rely on fuel cars to create profits, which brings jobs and taxes, the industry in recent years and “regression” to the fuel car as the platform of the era.

Some auto industry analysts told reporters that from the perspective of business logic, the auto market, especially the new energy vehicle market, China is the largest market in front of us, and the rapid growth in recent years, consumer acceptance of new energy vehicles is high, car companies do not have the need to go far away.

For Chinese car companies should focus more on the domestic market, Cui Dongshu does not agree with the reference, he believes that China to become an automotive powerhouse, exports will necessarily need to be significantly increased, and China as a large manufacturing country, automotive exports can also pull the incremental exports of industrial manufactured goods. “The growth of export scale means that the supply chain strength, in the automotive field is also facing the same situation as in the field of home appliances, from Europe, America, Japan and South Korea to grab market dominance.”

But wanting to compete with traditional auto powerhouses for market dominance does not depend on auto exports alone.

The aforementioned auto industry insiders expressed their concerns about the current auto export model to the China Newsweek reporter. “On the one hand, the high freight costs, especially shipping costs, have affected the profits of car companies in the past two years. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, the security for Chinese car companies going abroad remains inadequate. For example, overseas consumers are more accustomed to using consumer credit to buy cars, but perhaps the support for Chinese car companies in terms of consumer credit is still insufficient.”

He told reporters that car companies also face more realistic constraints at sea, “such as how to get back the money earned by car companies overseas? The limited degree of internationalization of the yuan, some countries have strict foreign exchange controls, restricting the outflow of funds, preferring to invest locally, forcing some car companies in turn to import some red wine for sale, in fact, is disguised through this means to let the funds flow back to the domestic.”

Cui Dongshu believes that the future of car enterprises to go to sea certainly from the trade type to a more comprehensive overseas layout, “SAIC Group is the reason why the export volume is larger, but also the result of long-term accumulation, when the purchase of the brand name, equivalent to seize the breakthrough in the European market, to enter Europe with the brand name, it is easier to promote. At present, Chinese car companies want to launch a purely local brand in Europe is still more difficult, on the one hand, the credibility of the brand still needs to be improved, and the other is that the product still needs to do localization and improvement.”

In 2021, SAIC will sell 697,000 units in overseas markets, with one-third of sales produced in overseas bases and two-thirds exported from China. Zhao Aimin admits that both the political situation and the economic situation are very challenging for the export of complete vehicles. “In fact, we also hope that in different regions and different markets can better integrate into the local area, establish manufacturing centers, achieve sustainability, and be able to reduce the risk due to political, economic, exchange rate and other aspects.”

Chen Shihua believes that in addition to the export of Japanese vehicles, some spare parts industry is also in the synchronization of the sea, that is, the industry to the sea, and Japan is also relatively careful in the choice of export destinations, such as in the U.S. market layout earlier, but also more successful, but for example, for some geographic proximity of the market, when some Japanese car companies into the enthusiasm than the public.

“Observe the Japanese car companies into South China’s investment strategy can be found, whether it is the early Honda, or after the Toyota, Nissan, Japanese car companies into China often bundled with the entire industrial chain, almost the ‘family bucket’, Toyota Aisin, Denso, textile and other supporting supply chain companies all in Guangzhou set up factories.” An automotive industry analyst so to the reporter summed up the Japanese car companies to the sea strategy.

Obviously, the overseas layout of production capacity, industrial chain, Chinese car companies still have a long way to go.