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China delivers first commercially available plug-in hybrid

The Chinese firm BYD (Build Your Dream) has leapt dramatically into the electric car market with the introduction of the F3DM, a commercially available plug-in hybrid that can travel for 60 miles without using its gasoline engine.

The car retails for about $22,000 in China, well below the projected price of the Chevy Volt, which it closely resembles. Of course, the F3DM isn’t available yet outside China yet, and both Toyota and Chevrolet may beat the company to market in the U.S. Nevertheless, Warren Buffett owns 10% of the company, and it’s a good bet that it has its eyes on world markets. The car made a big splash at the Detroit auto show this year (in part thanks to an illegal, pranksterish test drive).

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this story is that BYD isn’t an car maker by pedigree. The company makes batteries — a lot of them: “65 percent of the world’s market for nickel-cadmium batteries and 30 percent of the lithium-ion cell phone batteries.”

Electrification of cars is coming. No one yet knows whether the route will be via a car-as-a-service scheme like Better Place, or whether battery prices will drop so quickly that people will just buy the vehicles themselves. In either case, the next decade will likely be the most interesting one in the long history of automobiles.

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