When Chinese electric-vehicle maker BYD Motors Inc. first came to the United States in 2011, executives said they would create up to 150 jobs at its downtown L.A. headquarters.

Those plans, backed by a hefty investment from the city of Los Angeles, never connected – only 39 people work there today, a number of them transfers from BYD’s Chinese operations. And the company hasn’t come up with an electric car that will sell in the United States.

But now, the U.S. subsidiary of Shenzhen, China’s BYD Co. Ltd. plans to build electric buses for the U.S. transit market. The company last month landed a $14 million contract to sell 10 electric buses to Long Beach Transit; BYD said that it will start building them in Lancaster this year.

John O’Dell, a senior editor with Santa Monica vehicle review site Edmunds.com, said that the switch to buses was obviously the right move.

“It doesn’t look like they’ll ever do much job creation in terms of passenger vehicles,” said O’Dell. “They may be able to do it with electric buses.”

The company has secured two Lancaster buildings, one for assembling buses and another for making batteries, said Micheal Austin, vice president of BYD America.

The main plant, he said, was formerly used by a recreational vehicle maker and has much of the infrastructure needed for building buses and all the necessary permits.

Austin acknowledged that setting up a manufacturing facility in California turned out to be more difficult than expected because of permitting issues.

“We came to California really naive about the time it takes to put this in place,” he said. “With Lancaster, we were very lucky to find a site that had exactly what we need.”

Nevertheless, now BYD will have to move fast. The Long Beach buses, which at $1 million each cost twice as much as conventional buses – the contract also includes the cost of charging stations and other infrastructure – must be in service by June 2014. A groundbreaking event for the factory is set for May 1.

Austin would not say how much the company paid for the buildings.

BYD, which counts billionaire Warren Buffett as an investor, is bidding for other contracts and plans to build 50 to 100 buses in the plant’s first year. Austin said the number of employees at the site would roughly correspond to the number of buses produced annually but would not give an exact figure.


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