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China’s Year of the Electric Vehicle Is Now Year of the Shakeout

An economic meltdown will jeopardize expansion and adoption in world’s largest auto market.

The headlight of a NIO self-driving electric concept vehicle at the 2017 Shanghai auto show.

The headlight of a NIO self-driving electric concept vehicle at the 2017 Shanghai auto show.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
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This year was supposed to be a watershed for electric vehicles, with BYD, Daimler, General Motors, Tesla, and other industry titans scheduled to roll out new models and open manufacturing plants in China, the technology’s largest market. Then the coronavirus came along, short-circuiting demand for cars of every sort and leaving EV makers with, at best, a dream deferred.

Because of the pandemic and its accompanying economic meltdown, 2020 is on track to be the third straight year of declining sales in the world’s biggest auto market, jeopardizing multibillion-dollar expansion plans by EV makers. Tesla Inc. in January began deliveries from a new factory in Shanghai after co-founder Elon Musk spent years courting Chinese leaders, only to temporarily shut it weeks later when the government imposed a lockdown that kept workers and buyers home.