Is China leading the electric vehicle race? Here's what the numbers say

Elon Musk seems to disagree with President Biden's latest tweet on the subject.
Chris Young
The photo credit line may appear like this1, 2

U.S. President Joe Biden took to Twitter yesterday to highlight plans for the construction of a national public charging network to boost electric vehicle (EV) uptake in the country.

"China has been leading the electric vehicle race, but that's about to change," Biden wrote. It is one of a series of remarks that have left Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Tesla fans, feeling bemused. So much so, that a group of Tesla fans started a successful petition asking Biden to mention the company in public.

Predictably, Biden's tweet also garnered a response from Elon Musk himself, who is an avid user of the social media platform — sometimes to his detriment, and that of others.

What did Elon Musk say?

Joe Biden's full tweet reads as follows: "China has been leading the electric vehicle race, but that's about to change. We're building a convenient, reliable, equitable national public charging network. It'll make America more economically competitive and help us tackle the climate crisis at the same time."

In response, Elon Musk posted a somewhat uncharacteristically short and snark-free response, by stating simply: "Tesla."

Perhaps that's all he needed to say, fans of the SpaceX and Tesla CEO might argue. Maybe that petition — which earned 58,000 signatures — for Biden to acknowledge Tesla in public said it all. In any case, it's worth unpacking the strong suggestion behind that one-word reply.

Is the U.S. really lagging behind China in the EV race?

So is the U.S. really so far behind China in terms of EV production? It kind of, sort of, depends on how you look at it.

Alongside his "Tesla" retort, Musk also posted a link to an article by InsideEVs that lists the world's top electric vehicle companies. At the top of the list is Tesla, which sold 936,172 EVs in 2021, a 16 percent increase over the previous year, giving it a 21 percent market share. China's SAIC Motor is second in all-electric car sales, with 609,730 EVs sold and a 13 percent share.

So in terms of global production, U.S.-based company Tesla, which is worth approximately $1 trillion, is the clear world leader, and it has been for some time, which is likely what drew the ire of Musk and his followers.

Is China leading the electric vehicle race? Here's what the numbers say
A picture from the Tesla production line at Fremont. Source: Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia Creative Commons

Still, all of that doesn't mean the U.S. isn't lagging behind China, and even Europe, when it comes to overall EV production. A June 2021 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) points out that 10 million EVs were produced between 2010 and 2020. In that time, U.S. automakers accounted for only 18 percent of that output. China was by far the largest global EV producer as it produced 44 percent of EVs in that decade. Europe produced 25 percent of global EVs in that timeframe.

One fact does stand out about U.S. EV production in the ICCT's report. In the year 2020, U.S. automakers produced roughly 450,000 EVs, and Tesla accounted for approximately 85 percent of that output. So, while Biden's comment is technically correct, you could argue that Musk and others are right to be irked about the president's lack of recognition for a company that is arguably carrying U.S. EV output, and also played a large role in igniting the current global drive towards transport electrification.

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