General Motors Co. refuted reports today that the Chinese are after the intellectual property contained in the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car.
“We have had no requests for intellectual property around the Volt from our partner or the Chinese government,” Vice Chairman Steve Girsky told reporters on a call to discuss a new electric car project between the U.S. automaker and its longtime partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.
Girsky explained that the Volt, which it plans to export to China, will not qualify for subsidies for locally manufactured new energy vehicles — the Chinese term for plug-in hybrids and electric cars — but “we knew that up-front.”
Concerns that China was trying to pressure GM into turning over intellectual property were renewed by a recent story in The New York Times that said the Volt wouldn’t qualify for subsidies unless GM revealed the car’s engineering secrets. Michigan’s elected representatives cried foul and demanded action to stop China from forcing American companies to hand over their technology secrets.
Industry experts based in China say that under the New Energy Vehicle Development Plan, electric and plug-in vehicles must not only be produced in China by a Chinese carmaker or a joint venture with one to be eligible for incentives – but the manufacturer must have intellectual property rights and “mastery” of one of three key components: the motor, battery or power electronics.
They say that reflects an unofficial quid-pro-quo: foreign automakers are allowed to generate big sales and profits in the world’s biggest market, but they’re also expected to help the Chinese develop their own industry. Girsky seemed to be alluding to that when he said that GM is making good money in China and is No. 1 in sales, with its ventures.
This is a balancing act automakers are going to have to maintain for a long time. China has understandable aspirations as well as a poor record on intellectual property issues. And as often happens on stories involving people and companies in the Far East, there’s no quick public response or explanation from the other side. Communication between Americans and Asians is hindered by the big difference in time and language difficulties. And in this instance, communication among the Americans themselves hasn’t been clear either.