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Institutional Complementarities: The Origins of Experimentation in China’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle Industry

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A vast literature on technology transitions within industries suggests that early phases of new technologies are marked by periods of intense experimentation, but we know little about the conditions under which these periods emerge. We apply inductive, grounded theory-building techniques to examine what prompts firms to experiment across one emerging technology platform—plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs)—in China. Triangulating annual vehicle make and model sales data from 2003-2016 (plus monthly data from 2010-2016); 112 English and Mandarin archival documents from industry, academic, and news outlets; and 51 semi-structured interviews with industry, government, and academic stakeholders, we develop four in-depth case studies. We find that in contrast to the innovation trajectories of multinational and Chinese arms of joint venture (JV) firms, independent domestic Chinese firms (those with no history of international JV partnerships) are undertaking significant experimentation across multiple levels—infrastructure, core system, subsystem, and component—of the emerging PEV technology platform. We propose the concept of “institutional complementarities” to describe how interactions among institutions—here the national JV regulation and local market support and subsidies—may have turned regional markets into protected laboratories, extending the incubation periods for independent domestic firm experimentation. While this diverse experimentation may be an important antecedent of technology transition, consolidation induced by national policy standardization or competitive pressure may be required for PEV innovations to scale beyond their early, protected regional markets.

John Paul Helveston is an Assistant Professor in the Engineering Management and Systems Engineering Department at the George Washington University. His research focuses on understanding the factors that shape technological change, with a particular focus on transitioning to more sustainable and energy-saving technologies. Within this broader category, he studies consumer preferences and market demand for new technologies as well as relationships between innovation, industry structure, and technology policy. He has explored these themes in the context of China’s rapidly developing electric vehicle industry. He applies an interdisciplinary approach to research, with expertise in discrete choice modeling and conjoint analysis as well as interview-based case studies.

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