Warren Buffett Bets on Chinese Electric Car

The BYD F3 is a promising electric vehicle. (Photo: Kevauto [CC BY SA-4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

It looks like any other well-designed sedan but inside the F3, manufactured by Chinese battery-turned-car company BYD, is a whole new way of looking at automobile technology, and it has drawn in the world's richest investor -- Warren Buffett.

BYD founder Wang Chuan-Fu mastered the art of battery chemistry and launched his rechargeable battery company in 1995, which is now one of the largest in the world.

In 2003, he realized he had the key component to essentially reinvent the automobile for China's massively expanding 21st century economy -- batteries. If the Chinese followed America's lead, they would soon have a dirty, fossil-fuel dependent economy on their hands. With his sophisticated battery technology, he could liberate the Chinese auto industry from fossil fuels.

And that is just what he's doing. The F3 is a plug-in electric vehicle that hits a magic sweet spot between affordability and range. It can go 62 miles on a single charge and sells for about $22,000 less than the Prius and the much-hyped Chevy Volt (which is not out until 2010). It is dual-fuel car (not a hybrid), and uses a back-up gasoline engine for extended range when necessary.

This is exactly what the auto industry needs, and it's not surprising that it became the top-selling car in China last year.

But this wasn't the real reason Buffett's investment firm Berkshire Hathaway chipped in $230 million to expand the company's operations worldwide. The real reason was BYD CEO Wang Chuan-Fu.

Described as half Thomas Edison, half Jack Welch, Chuan-Fu was the uncanny ability to solve problems and execute, while the larger automotive companies seem to putter along in last-decade technology. That, and the fact that Wang-Fu said "No" when Berkshire wanted to buy 25 percent of the company. Instead he offered 10 percent, providing the Buffet was involved. And it worked...

Read the full story by Marc Gunther at Fortune.com.