Chinese electric car invasion faces shipping crunch

EV Shipping

Major companies including BYD, SAIC and Geely are scrambling for shipping capacity – AFP/Getty Images

A global shortage of specialist transport ships has put the brakes on the Chinese electric car invasion of Britain.

One in three electric cars sold in Britain last year, or 32.7pc, were manufactured in China, according to figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

The figure is up from 27.1pc just two years earlier and includes western companies such as Tesla and BMW that have factories in China.

By comparison, Chinese brands themselves have a 10.4pc market share in the UK, up from 5.5pc two years ago.

Many are now looking to aggressively expand their customer base, with BYD set to launch cars including the low-priced Dolphin and MG set to launch its Cyberster sports car.

But analysts are predicting that the share of Chinese-made cars being sold in the UK will temporarily plateau as manufacturers struggle to get them shipped to Europe due to a shortage of specialist vessels.

In a sign of how stretched capacity is globally, BYD has retrofitted a ship previously used to move pulp to make it capable of carrying cars to South America.

Mr Schmidt said: “This issue has left a big hole in the global automotive logistical chain and that is acting as a headwind for exports from China to Europe.

“So we are seeing volumes stagnating at about 30,000 units per month and it appears the Chinese firms simply cannot break through that figure at the moment.

“It is definitely going to be a big speed bump as these brands try to get more market share in Europe.”

Several “pure car pure truck” (PCTC) transporters were scrapped during the Covid pandemic and shipyards did not recover quickly enough to replace them all and meet resurgent demand as economies reopened.

Now, companies including BYD, MG owner SAIC and Volvo-owner Geely are scrambling for capacity.

Stephen Gordon, of maritime freight research firm Clarksons, said the shortage had sent charter prices for PCTC vessels to a record of $115,000 (£90,000) per day, or about $42m a year.

There are around 760 of them in operation globally, typically with a capacity for 6,500 cars each.

But although another 185 are on order at shipyards, they take three to four years to make, with the global fleet size only due to increase by about 8pc in 2024.

Mr Gordon said: “In the short term, we are expecting prices to stay relatively firm.”

Disruption being caused by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea is also expected to add to car makers’ costs, as they are forced to send vessels around the southern tip of Africa instead.

Some 315,000 battery electric vehicles were registered in the UK last year, according to the SMMT, up by 18pc compared to 2022.

About 103,000 of these were Chinese-manufactured.

According to Schmidt Automotive Research, a total of 484,000 cars were shipped from China to western Europe in the first ten months of 2023.

This included 280,000 made by Chinese brands, 130,000 made by Tesla, which has a factory in Shanghai, and 74,000 by western brands such as BMW.

However, amid suggestions from European leaders that Chinese car imports could face tariffs due to the country’s carbon emissions and large levels of state support, more brands are now looking at opening factories on the Continent.

BYD has said it will build one in Hungary, while Chinese state-owned Chery has said it is considering building a factory in the UK.

BYD was contacted for comment.

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