Next Monday, a battery-powered, 40-foot bus is set to roll off the assembly line in a former recreational vehicle factory in Lancaster, California, a blue-collar desert community north of Los Angeles, and be delivered to the local transit authority.
There’s no missing the symbolism—a defunct manufacturing plant that once made massive, gas-hogging RVs is reborn to produce carbon-free transportation (and local jobs)—as the world tips toward climate catastrophe.
But here’s who’s driving this $800,000 bus: China. The owner of the factory and the technology that lets the eBus go 155 miles on a charge is BYD, the $38 billion Chinese conglomerate that makes everything from electric cars to LED lighting to solar panels. (The company is best known in the United States for the owner of 10 percent of its shares—a Nebraskan investor named Warren Buffett.)
As I wrote in The New York Times last October about BYD’s move into Los Angeles:
THERE’S a newcomer to this city’s auto row. Compared to the shiny showrooms displaying the latest Mercedeses and Toyotas, the Chinese carmaker BYD’s outpost in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers looks rather forlorn.
Just two of its models — a red electric sport utility vehicle and a brown gasoline-powered sedan — are on view in an otherwise empty storefront. But it’s the pair of 40-foot-long battery-powered buses parked across the street that is driving the company’s ambitions to become the first Chinese automaker to break into the United States market.
The company beat American competitors to win contracts to build electric buses for transit agencies in Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach. BYD is also pursuing deals to supply electric shuttle buses to rental car agencies, amusement parks and Silicon Valley technology companies. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a two-month road-test of BYD’s battery-powered eBus in September.
Media attention, though, has focused on BYD’s rocky entry into the U.S. market. California state regulators last year docked the company $99,245 for violating state labor laws by under-paying Chinese engineers it brought over to work at the Lancaster factory. The labor commission later dropped that charge and reduced the fine to $37,803 for minor infractions of state labor laws.