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U.S. dealers to sell low speed EVs made at China’s Liuzhou Wuling. Biz model may work.

November 6, 2012

Liuzhou Wuling Motors Co. http://www.wulingauto.com.cn/en/index.aspx is breaking into the U.S. market with low-speed electric vehicles!   And they are being sold through regular car dealerships, by established car dealers.   I visited the first EcoCentre dealership, located in Irvine, CA, in October.  I came away thinking it is a formula that might succeed.  But it will still be a tough slog to make it work.

The Wuling name is familiar to many of you because of the SAIC-General Motors-Wuling joint venture www.sgmw.com.cn that produces minivans and a mini car under the SGMW badge and now cars under the Baojun name.   Liuzhou Wuling also exists as a separate company; that is who Bill Fisher, the man who is spearheading the Wuling EV venture, deals with.

A bit of background on both Wuling and Fisher.  I was the first foreign journalist to visit Wuling in 2001, when the SAIC/GM/Wuling venture was just being formed.    I interviewed Shen Yang, then president of Liuzhou Wuling.  I believe he is head of the group now.  Even then, the GM influence was apparent on the plant floor.  The production line was in an old building with a railway track outside so rail cars full of coal could bring power to the plant.  But inside the plant was clean and organized, with red lines showing where non-production personnel and visitors should walk and a sign keeping track of days without a worker injury.  Those old buildings and production lines have been replaced by new, fully modernized buildings and equipment now, says Fisher.

As for Bill Fisher, I met him in Shanghai about eight years ago.  Fisher is CEO of AmAsia International, the Florida-based importer of the electric vehicles.  I admit to some skepticism when I first met him about Fisher’s dream of importing Chinese vehicles.  And he has had some dead-end ventures.  But Bill stuck with it, which makes me respect him.  In China, he works with Frank Chou, a retired GM executive and generally great guy.

Fisher’s idea this time is to import low-speed electric fleet vehicles produced at Wuling and sell those vehicles badged as the “Eco” brand through a chain of EcoCentre dealerships.    The Eco brand products currently are the EcoVan, the EcoTruck, and the EcoE mini-car, three pure electric vehicles produced in China by Liuzhou Wuling.  They range in price from $9,995 for the EcoE to $17,995 for the EcoVan.     Target customers are municipalities, universities, medical schools and the like, all of which have large fleets of low-speed vehicles.

A line of Wuling-produced EcoTrucks awaits buyers at the Irvine EcoCentre.

If you are from China or have spent time there, the EcoVan and the EcoTruck would look familiar.  The EcoVan is based on the Wuling Sunshine van, only it has a 96-Volt battery instead of a gasoline-fueled drivetrain.  The EcoTruck is based on Wuling’s D150 truck, says Fisher.  The EcoE is a mini car that Fisher says he worked with Wuling to develop.  Fisher says he has the western hemisphere distribution rights for these Wuling vehicles.

In turn, Fisher has appointed Ramon Alvarez as his representative in the U.S.  Alvarez has trademarked the Eco brand name and is finding dealers to open EcoCentre dealerships http://www.ecocentre.us/EcoCentre/index.php  to sell the Eco brand.  Alvarez has been in the car business in California for 30 years.  He owns Lincoln http://www.alvarezlm.com/ and Jaguar dealerships in Riverside, he is president of the state’s New Motor Vehicle Board, and he helped found an alliance of minority dealers.  So he had some cred in the dealership world.

The vehicles I saw in Irvine, California were not the first Wuling vehicles Fisher has brought to the U.S.  He started importing the vehicles some five years ago, and worked with several other distributors before starting the EcoCentre concept.  Why didn’t he start out selling Wuling vehicles through established dealerships, I asked Fisher?  “At the beginning, I don’t think our vehicles were prepared,” he said.  “The drivetrains weren’t sophisticated enough to merit being sold in a dealership.”   But Fisher worked with Wuling to make improvements such as replacing the 72 volt battery with a 96 volt battery, he says.  Then he started lining up auto dealers here in the U.S. to open EcoCentres.

Alvarez sees gold in the inexpensive Wuling vehicles “If you sell 30 of my cars a month you are going to make $100,000” a year, he said.   That optimistic estimate relies on dealers tapping into their local communities, finding universities, municipalities, and others to buy the inexpensive EVs.   “Not everybody can buy a Volt but a lot of people can buy a $9,995 car,” said Alvarez.

Denice Fladeboe Mock, president of the Fladeboe Automotive Group in Irvine, Calif., is the dealer principle at the first EcoCentre store, in Irvine.  “I have always been involved in green things,” said Mock.   “Ramon approached me and I liked his concept.”  Mock is also selling another China-made product in her store –she is also a Coda www.codaautomotive.com dealer and the body of the Coda sedan is produced at Hafei Motors in China.

Ramon Alvarez and Denise Fladeboe Mock with an EcoE.

Mock has no worries about selling the Wuling electric vehicles.  “Ramon has really done his research,” said Mock.   She figures her location is a “perfect storm” for reaching fleet customers.  The University of California Irvine is nearby, as are a medical center and numerous corporate campuses.  But Mock doesn’t see sales immediately skyrocketing.  She will do a lot of grassroots marketing, said Mock.  “I don’t think the EV market will grow really fast.  My job is to educate the public.”

Alvarez will open EcoCentre dealerships in some half dozen Southern California cities in the next year.  A Glendale dealer just finished his training and will open in early December, says Alvarez.  A Riverside dealer just signed on, and Alvarez says he is in discussion with dealers in several other cities.  This is just the beginning of his master plan.   “We plan to have conservatively 175 to 200 (dealerships) in a five year plan,” said Alvarez.   And he isn’t stopping with small low-speed vehicles.  Alvarez asked me if I knew of any Chinese companies making good quality medium-speed electric vehicles that he could sell in his stores.

I have some faith in Wuling’s quality.  It has worked with GM for years, after alll.  But I think Alvarez will have a harder time finding a high-quality medium-speed product in China.  In any case, first he needs to concentrate finding dealers to sell the three models he has.  I’ll check back with him — and the dealers —  in a few months and report on the progress!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2012 12:50 am

    Alysha–

    Thanks for finding this and reporting on it. I agree, this sounds like a product that might actually make it.

    What is the speed and range difference between a “low-speed” and a “medium-speed” EV?

    Thanks in advance,

    –Keith
    http://blog.fuelcellnation.com

    • November 7, 2012 6:43 pm

      @ Keith According to Fisher: A low speed vehicle is classified under the DOT specifications FMVSS 500 Rules (Federal Motor Vehicle safety Standards) as a vehicle that has a gross vehicle weight of under 3,000 lbs, must have a maximum speed of 25 MPH and have seat belt, windshield wipers, headlights, taillights, turn signals, brake lights. Windows must include DOT glass and headlights and taillights must be DOT certified as well.

      There is no current federal standard for Medium Speed vehicles. Medium speed vehicles have been designated on a state by state basis and where it is applicable the same standards apply to the vehicles for content as the Low Speed classification with the exception that they may travel at a speed greater than 25 MPH. In those states where it applies those vehicles may not legally travel on federal highways. The maximum speed for a MSV ranges from 35 MPH in most cases all the way up to 55 MPH in Maryland. You can see a list of those states that allow MSV’s and their maximum speed at the website for the National Insurance Institute for Highway safety http://www.iihs.org/laws/mediumspeedvehicles.aspx

      Hope that helps.

  2. Lawrence permalink
    November 7, 2012 1:47 am

    With you Alysha, I am glad to see Bill Fisher finally making headway with his longtime efforts. I had been watching it all from afar.
    Looks like he may be filling the vacuum left by Michael Ward who sold Chang’an minitruck low-speed EVs, under the name Tiger Truck, in the U.S. for years. A couple of years ago I found one one of these in service at a VA hospital campus on the east coast.
    But in 2010 Ward’s company Tiger Truck disappeared from the China-vehicle-import scene, when liquidation followed bankruptcy in an Oklahoma court. Once doing well, it came as a surprise to me.
    Back to AmAsia, I somehow got the idea that Bill had teamed up with ZAP EVs of Santa Rosa, on this import/distribution project and thus kicked things off beginning on the west coast, instead of Florida. Did I get this wrong?
    Apparently this is not Wuling’s maiden voyage to the U.S.. A China exporter called Kingstar may have delivered a limited number there a while back, according to its website:
    http://www.kingstar.com.cn.

    • November 7, 2012 6:00 pm

      Hi Lawrence,
      Trust you to catch me on the Wuling entering the U.S. market point! Actually, I suspected Wuling vehicles may have been here before, but not as EVs and not in this business model i.e. selling through dealerships. Indeed, Bill brought some in. Bill has also had dealings with Zap, I believe, but the Zap that exists now is different from the earlier Zap. A bit confusing. Re: Tiger Truck. I know of Tiger. It seems the distributor had some legal problems. I don’t remember specifics, however. There are of course other Chinese EVs in the U.S. in the form of golf carts, etc.
      Alysha

  3. John Kua permalink
    November 10, 2012 1:59 am

    Hi Alysha,
    This is John again, from Singapore. We last corresponded on China’s EV plan back in August on your blog.
    This is an interesting article!. I also have some experience in low speed EVs, or NEVs in Southeast Asia and China.
    I like to share my thoughts of what I already know – these NEVs, have speed limits of 25 to 30 mph. They usually have the simpler drive technology, such as DC series drivetrain.
    I suspect Wuling’s low 96-Volt drive system seems more to be DC than AC synchronous, as they claimed. AC drive systems are typically of much higher voltage, and more complicated and expensive. Also these NEVs would probably have sealed lead acid batteries(maybe with newer nickel metal hydride types) to keep cost low and affordable. Lithium ion packs are comparatively expensive!
    However, the main concern about these NEVs is safety and limited range, due to battery type. Safety – because being light and low speed, they are potentially more vulnerable to serious damage from impact crashes when driven on faster moving traffic. Accidents have not only occurred in China, but also in U.S. with stricter traffic codes for these NEVs (e.g. in California, and also in South Carolina).

    I also like to add on Alvarez’s comments : “Not everybody can buy a Volt but a lot of people can buy a $9,995 car,” . To me, there’s no comparison with the Volt. The Volt is a full-fledged on-the-road vehicle. These NEVs have limitations of size, speed, range, technology and, safety. They are, as you pointed out, more suited for quiet “gated” communities, universities with lighter traffic. From my experience on NEVs, battery packs are the first to show sign of degradation. And they are also usually the most expensive.

    Regards
    John Kua

  4. November 12, 2012 12:14 am

    Hi John,
    Thanks for your message. Although Alvarez did seem to suggest that the customer base for the Volt and the Wuling EVs was similar, he was speaking a bit facetiously, I think. His point is just that these are affordable. And though your point about safety is well-taken, the target customer for these EVs is fleets at universities and hospitals and the like, so they would be driving around campuses, not on the open road.

    Re: The batteries. They are absorbed glass mat batteries according to the specs on the website for the EcoCentre. http://ecocentre.us/EcoCentre/electric-vehicle-eco-van.php

    Alysha

    • John Kua permalink
      November 13, 2012 2:58 am

      Hi Alysha,
      Thanks for clarification.
      By the way, the absorbed glass mat battery they used is a form of dry, sealed lead acid battery technology, just as I guessed. Lead acid batteries, as rule of thumb, have 50% less energy density than the recent nickel-metal hydride type, and about 3 times less density than the current state-of-art lithium-ion batteries. Also 3 times the lithium weight. I think that’s why it’s so relatively cheap.
      Just another observation.
      Do keep in touch!

      Best Regards
      John

  5. February 15, 2014 6:22 am

    Thanks for sharing superb informations. Your web-site is very cool. I am impressed by the details that you have on this blog. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for extra articles.

    • February 15, 2014 4:48 pm

      Thanks. I need to do a follow up on this blog as it seems that the business model has not worked. But according to dealers who wanted to work with EcoCentre it was poor management on the EcoCentre side. I want to hear both sides of the story, however.

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