Think China will dominate the EV market? You’re probably wrong

In the wake of surging electric vehicle (EV) sales in China, it might seem that the Chinese market has already won the “EV race” – meaning the race to secure global dominance of this new technology. But this judgment seems premature.

Most commentary focuses on Chinese strengths in EV technology and production, or the size of China’s EV market. But this misses crucial factors that will affect how, and even whether, China’s EVs are adopted across the world.

The question is not just whether China will dominate the global EV market, but also whether the EV can help China achieve the technological, economic, and geopolitical power it seeks. In other words, even if China gets good at making EVs, will EVs be good for China?

The EV is a clear example of an emerging industrial revolution: one that combines low-carbon and digital technology. So the country that takes the lead in producing and using EVs will likely be highly competitive on the world stage.

Historical comparisons can help us understand what is at stake here. For example, consider the inseparability of the global rise of the US during the 20th century and its simultaneous domination of the traditional car industry.

The US situation back then and the Chinese situation today share many similarities. In both cases, major technological change was happening within each country in parallel with a rise in their geopolitical power. And just as the traditional car became not only the main form of citizen transport but also a key symbol of social change during the 20th century, so too will it be for the EV in the 21st.

However, at the time of the mass adoption of the motorcar, the US enjoyed a unique position. As a liberal capitalist country, its growing power was reassuring – or at least preferable to communism or fascism – for other powerful countries at the time, like the UK.

The US also exemplified and exported forms of cultural creativity – including jazz and blues music, new fashion styles, and the technicolour movies – that were hugely attractive to people across the world.