Tesla Motors Inc vs. BYD: No Comparison – Yet

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Competition for Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) is certainly going to heat up over the next few years. Currently, there is no real challenger for Tesla, as the automaker’s battery has a much greater range than the batteries used in other electric vehicles. However, that will probably change. The only thing we don’t know is how quickly this will change.

Comparing Tesla with BYD

I’ve been following Chinese electric bus maker BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211)—the EV maker Warren Buffett has invested in—for the last couple of months, and we’re starting to see the company get a little more publicity. Today a post from Forbes again compared BYD to Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA). The real reason the media loves to compare Tesla with BYD is because they both happen to make electric vehicles. Also it’s essentially the U.S. versus China—a favorite pairing to talk about.

But in reality, the two companies couldn’t be more different.

Tesla’s CEO faces off with BYD execs

Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has been asked multiple times what he thinks about BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211)’s electric vehicles. In 2011, he laughed at the reporter who asked him. Then just last month, he told a Chinese reporter again that he didn’t think BYD’s electric car looks very good in the pictures he has seen.

BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211) executives naturally weren’t going to let Musk’s snarky comments go unaddressed. Founder and President Wang Chuanfu said they could make a car just like Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA)’s car “in a few minutes.”

Stella Li, a senior vice president at BYD, said they are the “academic” of the electric car industry and have a better map of the future of these vehicles. She also said BYD is definitely not inferior to Tesla and may even be superior to it. She also said they’ll be ready to “pick up some real fruits” after Tesla “warms up the market.”

Those certainly sound like fighting words to me, but for now, the two companies are quite different.

BYD and Tesla: two different worlds

BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211)’s Qin car has a 44 mile range, compared to Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA)’s nearly 200 mile range. It isn’t totally electric, as it has an HEV mode which includes a gasoline engine, making the car more a hybrid rather than an all-electric vehicle. What’s cool about the Qin though is that it has a remote control so that you don’t actually have to sit in the car to drive it. It may not be the most practical feature, but it’s pretty cool.

Both companies’ cars take about six hours for a full charge. However, while Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) caters only to wealthy consumers, BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211)’s car costs around $32,000, pricing it in the range Tesla is targeting for its mass market vehicle. Tesla, however, wants to see about a 200 mile range on its mass market vehicle. But because the two companies cater to entirely different segments of the car market, they aren’t currently direct competitors. Instead, BYD’s Qin is more in competition with the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt.

BYD buses rolling off the line

In addition, BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211) is currently more focused on electric buses than cars. The company opened its first U.S. plant recently and is already churning out electric buses after garnering numerous contracts for public transportation systems in North America. BYD is essentially a machine, and once it does find momentum in the car industry, it will undoubtedly have Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) more in its sights, particularly when Tesla’s mass market EV hits the market.

Tesla learning from BYD?

One thing about BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211) that’s particularly remarkable is how vertically integrated the company is. It owns every single aspect of the manufacturing process—even the mines where it gets the lithium.

Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), on the other hand, works with suppliers like Panasonic. The automaker is building a massive gigafactory, however, to play a bigger role in the manufacturing process. An interesting question will be whether Tesla also moves to become more vertically integrated like BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211).

Catering to specific markets

BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211) has also targeted its vehicles specifically to the needs and wants of the Chinese consumer, while Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) is using the U.S. market as a gauge for what is desired. Wang called Tesla’s cars a wealthy man’s toy, and it’s easy to see why, as he wants to make cars that are practical for the Chinese consumer.

Having a long range is not as important to Chinese consumers right now because most commute extremely short distances. While this is somewhat true in the U.S. as well, it is far more common to have a short commute in China than in the U.S. Chinese consumers tend to drive shorter distances in general than U.S. consumers do.

So are Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) competitors right now? Certainly not. But will they be in the future? Probably. And if Wang’s past determination says anything about his future, Tesla had better watch out when BYD Company Limited (HKG:1211) moves in.

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