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Associated Press
BYD Motors senior vice president Stella Li, and Lancaster, Calif., Mayor R. Rex Parris aboard an all-electric bus discuss the announcement of the opening of an electric bus manufacturing plant in California.

Chinese carmaker heads to US

– The first Chinese-owned vehicle manufacturer in the United States unveiled ambitious plans to build as many as 1,000 plug-in electric buses a year at a refurbished RV manufacturing plant in a wind-swept, sage-dotted corner of the Mojave Desert.

In a news conference last week on a patio outside BYD’s new energy-efficient production facility, the company’s senior vice president, Stella Li, said the first of 10 zero-pollution vehicles, already on order from the city of Long Beach, should roll off the assembly line next year.

Within two years, Li said, BYD Motors expects to be producing 50 buses a year, and it will continue to ramp up production, hoping to reach the plant’s capacity of 1,000 buses a year within a decade or two.

All the buses will be powered by the company’s own iron-phosphate batteries, which will be manufactured at another plant near the bus factory in Lancaster, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. BYD is the world’s largest manufacturer of rechargeable batteries.

“Today is a very special day for us,” Li said. “Today marks the first time a Chinese vehicle company opens a vehicle manufacturing plant in the United States.”

She said after the news conference that BYD has invested more than $10 million in the two plants, declining to give a more specific figure. When the vehicle plant reaches full production, she said, it could employ as many as 1,000 people.

BYD’s North American headquarters in Los Angeles currently employs about 40 people but will also grow as bus production does, Li said. She expects it will add engineers and people employed in marketing, distribution, and research and development.

Since it was founded with 20 employees in 1995, BYD Co. Ltd., has grown to employ 150,000 people across China and in offices in Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Among its investors is U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett. The company, which got into the automobile business 10 years ago, has been looking to expand into the U.S. market for some time.

Although China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest auto market, Chinese manufacturers have seen domestic sales inhibited by the popularity of cars from the United States and Japan, and they’ve been looking to expand elsewhere.

“It’s well known that Chinese manufacturers have been eyeing the North American market for years,” said U.S. auto industry analyst Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive in Northville, Mich. “It’s probably the most important market from their perspective,” he said.

But Robinet said it’s not an easy one to crack, thanks to the need to establish a dealership network, fluctuations in international currency and the volatility and competitiveness of the market itself.

So it makes sense that BYD would try to gain a foothold by building its vehicles on American soil as a means of controlling price and quality, he said.

At one point, BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams, had hoped to introduce its e6 model electric passenger cars to the U.S. by 2010, but has since pushed back those plans. Li said after Wednesday’s news conference that the company still hopes to eventually market the cars to taxi fleets in the U.S., but she couldn’t provide a timeline.