BEIJING—China's fast-growing electric car producers could take the lead in the global industry if the United States fails to invest heavily in the technology, a U.S. energy official said Wednesday.
Electric vehicles are a priority in U.S. energy policy but China is also investing aggressively in development, said David Sandalow, an assistant energy secretary. He spoke after attending a U.S.-Chinese forum on electric vehicles, which he said was attended by 80 Chinese and 60 American companies.
"They have the potential to be ahead if the United States does not invest heavily in this technology and in this industry. The Chinese are well positioned to be global leaders in the electric vehicle industry," Sandalow told reporters.
"I believe that we've got a lot to learn from each other, and that the world would benefit from us challenging each other in this industry," he said.
Beijing is promoting electric car development to curb surging demand for imported oil, which communist leaders see as a strategic weakness, and in hopes of taking a leading role in a promising industry. One developer, BYD Corp., says it hopes to start selling an all-electric vehicle in the United States by next year.
General Motors Corp. and other U.S. automakers are developing electric cars and GM and an Indian partner announced plans last week for a small model to be sold in India.
Sandalow also held talks with Chinese officials on cooperation in promoting energy efficiency, solar power and technology to capture carbon dioxide from burning coal and the next steps for a joint clean energy research center announced in July.
Clean energy cooperation will be a key topic when U.S. President Barack Obama makes his first trip to China in November, Sandalow said.
"Clean energy is clearly going to be high on the agenda," he said.
However, Sandalow said Chinese officials gave no updates on preparations for a global climate summit in Copenhagen in December. Chinese President Hu Jintao promised in a Sept. 22 speech at the United Nations to make "substantial reductions" in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of economic output but gave no details.
"I asked whether they had numbers," Sandalow said. "They said they were working on them."
The United States and China are the world's two biggest energy consumers and producers of gases that scientists say are changing the climate. They have pledged cooperation on an array of environmental initiatives but many are still in the planning stages.