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Made in China: A plug-in hybrid for the masses

BYD Auto begins selling first mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in China.

The F3DM is based on BYD's F3 (shown here). While it may look generic, the car's technology as a plug-in is innovative. BYD Auto

BYD Auto's plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the F3DM, is now on sale in China, the company announced this week at a press conference in Shenzhen, China.

The F3DM, which will retail for 149,800 yuan ($21,200), can travel 100 km (63 miles) on its battery before needing to be recharged, according to BYD Auto.

The car can be plugged in to any average Chinese 220-volt wall outlet to be recharged.

While there are other plug-in electric hybrid cars available for sale, BYD Auto's F3DM is the first one in China to be mass-produced and, therefore, widely available to the general public, according to both BYD and The Wall Street Journal.

BYD Auto told reporters at the press conference that it expects to sell 350,000 F3DM cars in 2009. It also plans to launch an all-electric vehicle in 2009.

BYD Auto is not 100 percent Chinese-owned.

In September, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet announced that MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, had bought $230 million worth of stock in BYD, giving it a 10 percent interest in the company.

Average Americans may also soon have a chance to buy a piece of BYD. The company also announced that it plans to begin exporting the F3DM to the U.S. in 2010.

Many automakers, including General Motors and Toyota, have been working on plug-in electric vehicles for mass production. All have said that the battery technology for this type of vehiclehas been the most challenging aspect of the development process.

It should be no surprise then, that the Shenzhen, China-based company which is now a major player in the Chinese auto industry, started out in 1995 as a cell phone battery manufacturer.

Despite the obvious economic crises faced by many automakers, 2008 has also been a year of innovative firsts finally being brought to the mass market.

In June, Honda began selling the FCX Clarity, the first commercial production car to run on electricity from a fuel cell battery powered by hydrogen fuel. While not truly available for mass consumption, the car is available for lease in parts of California and Japan.

This year also ushered in the birth of the first chain of electric battery exchange stations. Better Place signed deals with Australia, the California Bay Area, Hawaii, and Japan to build stations where electric vehicles could stop to swap drained car batteries for fully charged ones.