Tesla’s ‘Catfish Effect’ is propelling China’s local EV makers forward

Credit: Tesla China/Weibo

When Tesla was preparing to enter the electric vehicle segment with a wholly-owned factory in China, former Industry Minister Miao Wei stated that the American EV maker’s presence would result in a “Catfish Effect” on the country’s electric car industry. Just over a year since Gigafactory Shanghai started operations, it seems like Miao’s statements are shaping up to be accurate. 

The Catfish Effect suggests that the arrival of a strong competitor will encourage “weaker” players to innovate and better themselves. Tesla, being the world leader in EVs, seems to have played the catfish in China’s EV segment last year. The Silicon Valley-based electric car maker sold 114,000 made-in-China Model 3 vehicles during the first 11 months of 2020, as per data from the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA). 

(Credit: Tesla China/Weibo)

This month, Tesla dropped another strong player in the Chinese EV market in the form of the Model Y, an all-electric crossover that is more affordable than rivals from companies like Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. Tesla formally launched the Model Y in China with a starting price of RMB 339,900 ($52,550), 30% lower than its pre-launch price. This resulted in Tesla showrooms being swamped by prospective Model Y buyers. Competitors were appropriately unnerved, as per a report from The Nikkei Asian Review

China has stood as the world’s largest market for electric cars. This means that China’s premier EV makers such as BYD, SAIC, NIO, and Xpeng Motors are no joke. Local electric car makers can design and create compelling EVs, but last year, most–if not all–were eclipsed by the Model 3, whose technology was a cut above its domestic rivals. Its robust set of standard features like Autopilot also gave it an edge against competitors. 

Following the launch of the Model Y in China, Yu Liguo, the president of Arcfox, an EV unit of BAIC Motor, remarked that Tesla’s advantage in the country’s EV sector would likely not be matched by local manufacturers, at least not in the near future. This is especially true in the case of features like Autopilot, which place Tesla far ahead of competitors in the Chinese EV market and globally. Despite this, Yu was optimistic, noting that Chinese EV makers would catch up eventually. 

(Credit: Jay in Shanghai)

Pure EV companies from China are initiating programs that are aimed at expanding their business. NIO is ramping its battery-swapping network, and it recently launched a new used-car platform to make its vehicles more attainable to buyers. Xpeng Motors’ first European orders were also shipped from China to Norway. Legacy automakers such as SAIC, propelled by vehicles like the MG ZS EV, sold nearly 12,000 electric cars in Europe during the first nine months of 2020. 

Granted, Chinese-branded electric vehicles only account for about 10% of the global EV market, as per a report from UBS Securities. But thanks to the presence of Tesla, China’s electric vehicle makers may soon adopt more assertive strategies. With Gigafactory Shanghai ramping Model 3 and Model Y production, Tesla’s Catfish Effect may very well be underway in China. 

The Teslarati team would appreciate hearing from you. If you have any tips, email us at tips@teslarati.com or reach out to me at maria@teslarati.com.

Check out a MIC Model Y delivery event video below.

Maria Merano: Veteran writer and editor, who believes harmony between tech and nature is achievable. We just need to learn to compromise.
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