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Tesla-Unicom Deal Could Spark China’s Electric Vehicle Market

Electric vehicle firm Tesla’s major new deal with China Unicom to build EV charging infrastructure unites what is seemingly the only EV success story, pursuing a business model targeting elite customers, with China’s second largest mobile phone operator. In August, they agreed to build a network of EV charging piles at 400 Unicom stores in 120 cities, including extra-fast superchargers in 20 Chinese cities, offering free charging to Tesla vehicles.

Tesla’s share price hit a record on the news, reflecting a wider sense of growing optimism about EVs in China. In Vice Premier Ma Kai, EVs now apparently have a powerful and capable cheerleader at the highest level. With 100 billion yuan ($16 billion) to spend over the next 10 years, Ma also has the resources to make a significant impact. In response, JP Morgan foresees annual EV car sales doubling in this and future years.

But how significant is this single commercial deal, and in what way? Could it even be the “tipping point” for EVs after years of disappointment—total China sales remain below 20,000 vehicles so far—despite an industrial policy that explicitly treats this as a national priority and opportunity?

Breaking the Catch-22

Excitement about this deal rests on viewing charging as the major barrier to EV uptake.

Without reliably ubiquitous charging infrastructure, EVs come with “range anxiety”—especially in Chinese cities with their congested ring roads. But construction of such a charging network is a classic catch-22 “public good” problem: there is no incentive to build an infrastructure at private expense until there is demand but without infrastructure there will be no demand. Add in other problems, such as car park owners’ reluctance to give land for chargers, coordination challenges between EV producers and China’s State Grid, and local protectionism which prioritizes local EV producers regardless of market demand.

Charging is indeed a crucial hurdle for EV uptake in China. What charging infrastructure does exist is inadequate, and poorly managed and maintained.

Given the resulting low demand, the momentum of government support appears to be in the opposite direction, seeking to avoid throwing more good money after bad.

But the Tesla-Unicom deal is at best half the story, competing with (at least one) other emerging model of tackling the charging stalemate, the alliance between BMW and State Grid.

Both approaches feature a major foreign car company targeting the only bright spot in China’s EV market, the elite sector for big, expensive, and foreign—particularly German—cars. BMW, which is introducing its i3 any day now and already offers its Zinoro EV via its BMW-Brilliance JV on rent-only basis in several major cities, is seen as the real rival to Tesla. Moreover this is taking place amidst policy changes opening construction of charging networks to foreign EV firms, and an apparent strategy change by State Grid on its goal of control of charging infrastructure.

The ‘Tesla vs. BMW Race’

What is the nature of this competition? BMW and Tesla are taking radically different strategies towards the Chinese state, including on charging.

BMW pitches its commitment to China in ways calculated to woo state support. It manufactures in China through its Shenyang-based JV, (recently extended to 2028), emphasizing its localization programs and commitment to good corporate citizenship. And the strategy is working: BMW EVs are included in the official “new energy vehicle” (NEV) list benefiting from subsidies, and BMW’s charging standards remain in the game regarding the $16 billion of new government money set aside for charging infrastructure.

Conversely, Tesla is taking a self-consciously disruptive stance to the auto industry and policy, including in China.

Tesla has no production in China (yet) and so is excluded from the official NEV list. It operates its own stores rather than dealerships, has proprietary charging standards, and is dedicated solely to EVs. Most importantly, its pitch to the Chinese market is direct to the consumer, not the state—it prioritizes consumer appeal and is foregoing the usual price mark-ups that intense market demand in China affords Western luxury car brands, including BMW. It has adopted precisely the same strategy over charging, building its own charging infrastructure rather than waiting for the state. Tesla has deals not just with Unicom but also major real estate companies who seem, like Unicom, to be strategically well-placed to service Tesla owners and burnish the brand’s association with high-class, high-tech living.

Tesla’s deal with Unicom is potentially highly significant in breaking a current deadlock regarding charging infrastructure by introducing private money—including even that of wealthy enthusiasts, with one Tesla owner building charging infrastructure from Beijing to Guangzhou in order to get his car home from the showroom. Tesla thus seems to be setting the pace while BMW’s clear i3 production target positions it as committed to EVs and charging.

A New Level of Competition

The business press is fascinated with which company will win this “race”. But it is unlikely the significance of this deal lies in the obvious extrapolation from more Tesla chargers, to more Teslas, to an EV transition led by Tesla (or vice versa if BMW-Brilliance “wins”).

Tesla must navigate strategic challenges to avoid other companies becoming the major beneficiaries of its efforts. One risk is that Tesla knock-offs will emerge at significantly lower prices, and possibly equivalent quality given Tesla’s deliberate policy of open patents—another disruptive break from auto industry orthodoxy.

More significant, though, is the creation of a new level of competition with the state—between the Tesla and State Grid-BMW models—and within the state. This encompasses contests between “new kid on the block” Unicom versus State Grid and versus SOEs and ministries supporting the currently dominant internal combustion engine vehicle systems for future dominance of a potentially central infrastructure.

Dominance may quickly become “locked-in” through the settling of charging standards (a discussion from which Tesla is currently excluded). A possible parallel might be the effect of Celera’s entry into the sequencing of the human genome against the public sector Human Genome Project. In short, it seems the system transition to EV will be a winner regardless.

Moreover, it is not just a matter of an expedited charging systems roll-out. The challenge of EVs is not successful mass adoption of a new technology, so much as the socio-technical process of transition to an entirely different system of urban mobility. This urban mobility system has to involve more “livable” cities than is the current norm for China’s urbanization drive.

Competition

The real question of the Tesla-Unicom deal is how it contributes, systemically, to a shifting power momentum that can challenge the dynamic lock-in of conventional internal combustion engine-driven cars, still utterly dominant despite official support for EVs’ role within China’s urbanization.

Tesla is obviously still (very) small within China’s massive car market. So Tesla’s deal obviously does not equate to a system transition. But nor does “Tesla vs. BMW,” or even probably the “electric car.” But the potential repercussions of Tesla’s continuing deliberate disruptive strategy are fascinating.

If it establishes a new intensity of competition within the state, the Tesla-Unicom deal may significantly energize and mobilize forces actively working for EV transition, as well as oppositional interests of all kinds, with radical times calling for radical measures.

These developments should also be considered in conjunction with the New Urbanization Plan announced in May, the first such plan in China’s history and moreover one that explicitly mentions livable cities for the first time.

Whatever the significance of the Unicom deal, it suggests a messy, jerky process ahead, not smooth sailing through some tidy exponential graph of Tesla cars on Chinese roads. This deal will be a the “tipping point” in retrospect if it acts to catalyze a coalition of forces—including possibly defensively—within the Chinese state to take EV seriously and take bold steps in EV policy regarding both experimentation with models of e-mobility and partnerships with a much wider range of players than the major SOEs of China’s auto industry.