Why BYD is breaking into shipping

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The Chinese electric-vehicle maker has been particularly good at expanding into different, related businesses. Not only can it make high-performing and safe batteries for cars, but it also does almost everything in house, from designing car chips to mining lithium and other materials. The fact that it has subsidiaries in every step of the EV supply chain enables the company to keep its costs down and sell cars at more competitive prices.

Now, to pull that off once again, BYD is starting a sea freight business. As I just wrote in a story published today, the company is assembling a fleet of at least eight car-carrier ships that will transport BYD cars from factories in China to sell in Europe, South America, and other markets.

BYD has had a meteoric rise to become the Chinese EV sector’s poster child in recent years, and 2023 was particularly good for the company. It sold 3 million electric cars and plug-in hybrid models last year, up from 1.8 million in 2022. BYD managed to beat Tesla to become the world’s top-selling EV company in the fourth quarter of 2023. 

While the majority of those cars were sold in China, BYD’s export business has been expanding significantly. It exported over 240,000 cars in 2023, more than a fourfold increase from 55,000 cars in 2022; and the latter number was itself more than a fourfold increase from 13,000 in 2021.

But one thing has been getting in the way of these bonkers numbers: the lack of car-carrier ships internationally. A bust cycle in the international shipping industry since 2008, the technological challenge of making ships greener, and the fact that existing vessels are often already reserved by automakers in other countries—these factors have collectively resulted in ever-rising costs to hire a ship that can transport Chinese EVs abroad.

So Chinese companies like BYD and SAIC Motor are following in the footsteps of Japanese and Korean automakers: they’re building, chartering, and managing their own fleets of ships. This January, one boat operated by BYD and another operated by SAIC Motor set sail for the first time, between them carrying over 10,000 vehicles toward Europe. 

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