China now appears to be behind that wheel. The government has taken a major role in electric car development and is pushing to dominate the market. Beijing hopes the push will add to its technological know-how, help address its pernicious pollution problems and curb its dependence on oil imports from politically volatile countries.
To achieve this, China is offering global automakers enticing financial carrots and threatening them with weighty regulatory sticks. State-controlled automakers have begun putting massive investments into electric car production. Meanwhile, Beijing has mandated that automakers must start selling large numbers of electric cars and plug-in hybrid cars or risk losing their right to sell gasoline-powered cars in China, now the world’s largest auto market.
“Certainly having the full weight and power of the Chinese government behind it gave them a pretty good head start,” said James Chao, a China automotive analyst at IHS Markit.
China is already the world’s dominant producer not just of electric motors but of practically all their components. Chinese companies even mine most of the valuable minerals, called rare earth metals, that go into the tiny magnets often used to make many of the motors.
Volkswagen has said that together with its Chinese partners it would invest almost $12 billion to introduce 25 models of electric cars in the Chinese market between 2020 and 2025. VW already planned to bring 15 electric models to the country by 2020.
Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes-Benz and Smart cars, said at the Guangzhou auto show last month that it also planned a sharp increase in its electric car production investments, particularly for making the batteries.
“China will, in my view, be the biggest market for passenger cars for a very long time,” said Hubertus Troska, the company’s management board member responsible for China. Many of them, he added, will be electric.
General Motors, VW’s rival as the market leader in China, has put much of its electric car development effort in China and is laying plans to expand its electric car offerings here.
“Globally, but especially here in China, car companies are shifting and new companies emerging with a focus on electrified products,” Jennifer Goforth, the chief engineer of electrification at General Motors China, said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Jason Luo, the chairman and chief executive of Ford China, said in an interview on Tuesday that the supply base for electric car parts is expanding rapidly in China thanks to automakers’ changing production plans. That makes possible the same kind of formidable economies of scale that have allowed China to become the world’s dominant supplier of everything from solar panels to drones.
Once that electric car parts volume materializes, Mr. Luo said, “I call it an inflection point,” producing a drop in prices and a takeoff in sales.
Ford Motor’s market research has also found that Chinese customers are less concerned than customers elsewhere with issues like an electric car’s range on a single charge, said Peter Fleet, the president of Ford Motor’s Asia-Pacific operations. That may partly reflect the fact that cars in China tend to be used mainly for driving within cities.
Mr. Ford has a long history of interest in alternative-fuel vehicles. As a young man, he has said in interviews, he toyed with becoming an environmental activist before deciding that he could make more of a difference in the world going to work in the company his great-grandfather founded.