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EV Imports: Navigating the Electric Vehicle Market

Two electric vehicles at a charging station at sunset
Importing electric cars could be a way to get your hands on some amazing fuel-saving technology. Before you jump into it though, there are some important vehicle import laws worth reviewing.
By
Natalie Kienzle
July 28, 2022
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Last Modified: October 20, 2022

Electric vehicles or EV imports are seen as the next big step in reducing carbon emissions and saving a little gas money while we’re at it. It’s taken a few years, but EVs have now made their way into the assembly lines of most major auto manufacturers both in the United States and overseas. Besides the cars themselves, there are other major EV components, such as batteries and charge stations, available for import. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains the list of most vehicles eligible for import into the United States. This includes both new and pre-owned vehicles. Vehicles manufactured for distribution in U.S. markets, including EVs, must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

Get the details on EV car imports and their components to see how you can gain a foothold within this growing industry.  

EV imports - An electric vehicle is hooked up to a charging station

Importing Electric Cars to USA: Don’t Get Shocked

Thanks to the now widely available and standardized electric car designs, nearly every major car manufacturer in the world, and a few minor ones, have at least one EV model car available for sale. 

Across the automotive industry in general, the majority of cars driven in the U.S. were made here - roughly 54%. In the electric car market, nearly 80% of EVs currently on the road are manufactured domestically. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for foreign imports, however.  

There are roughly 230 million registered vehicles in the U.S. Of that number, between 4.6% to 7% are considered fully electric or hybrid electric vehicles. While that seems like a very small number, importers and possible investors should consider just how big of a jump that is. 

Compared to the sales of the previous quarter, that number indicates a 60% increase in EV sales - in just three months. Despite ongoing concerns with the automotive supply chain, higher gas prices are driving customers into EVs, even when they have to wait for them. 

Let’s consider a few more interesting trends for electric cars. 

These numbers are telling us that EVs are on a steadily increasing upward trend, one that import services can take advantage of. 

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Can You Import Electric Cars?

We’ve shown you there’s a thriving market for electric cars in the U.S., but it’s dominated by a single domestic manufacturer at the moment. It’s also considered a luxury car and out of reach financially for many. 

Many foreign automakers are now introducing economy EV cars, something not widely available domestically. Electric vehicles can be imported into the U.S. if they meet FMVSS rules and are manufactured according to American driving specifications.

Import standards and certifications are found through the Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance (OVSC), a division of NHTSA.  

Pure or fully electric motor vehicles that are street legal, passenger cars and motorcycles, are also fully regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and subject to their certification requirements. These are provided in Title 40 CFR 85 - 86, 600. 

Known as the Protection of Environment title, it contains the import requirements for all motor vehicles. For just light-duty vehicles, the category that the majority of EVs fall under, there are three sections to consider. 

  • Control of Air Pollution From Mobile Sources
  • Control of Emissions from New and In-Use Highway Vehicles and Engines
  • Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Exhaust Emissions of Motor Vehicles.  

Exemptions to some EPA emission guidelines are granted to Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). For an electric vehicle to qualify as a ZEV it must meet the following standards.

  • Powered by an electric motor using a rechargeable power system like storage batteries or hydrogen fuel cells
  • Is recharged from an off-vehicle source (EV charger or residential power)
  • Meets the strictest evaporative emissions standards of the EPA
  • Operable without any kind of onboard combustion or generator engine system

All of these things have to be proven through a series of tests submitted from the manufacturer to the EPA. 

To be in compliance with the Department of Transportation (DOT), EVs still need to meet fuel efficiency standards. For compliance purposes, an EVs battery system is referred to as a fuel cell system or as non-liquid fuel. 

The DOT has two fuel-related requirements all vehicles must meet.

Meeting GHG standards isn’t difficult for EVs since electric motors don’t release any emissions. Without a gas-consuming engine, there is no need for a tailpipe - no tailpipe, no emissions. The CAFE requirements are a little trickier because of the technology used in fuel cells and battery systems. Efficiency, and therefore range, still vary widely among the different types of EVs in production. 

Once you think you can make the EPA happy, satisfying the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requirements are another issue to tackle. To sell an EV in California and other states that have adopted similar standards, you must submit vehicle specifications that comply with CARB’s Advanced Clean Cars standards

All types of EVs fall under these standards, including:

  • ZEVs
  • Battery-electric vehicles
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
  • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles 

If you are looking to import EVs from a major manufacturer, you should look closely at exactly which ones are being held to a full set of CARB standards and which ones are eligible for exceptions. 

What does that mean for interested importers? Basically, you need to be working with or connected to a manufacturer willing to mass-produce and export EVs that meet U.S. standards. This is a process that can take years to finalize and represents a significant investment. 

Outside of detailed technical specifications, even some basic surface features might need changes. 

  • Distance and fluid measurements are converted from metric to U.S. standard
  • Steering assemblies are moved from a right-hand to a left-hand drive configuration 
  • Flat and convex side mirrors rather than aspherical side mirrors

Other changes, like the availability of automatic transmissions rather than manual ones, don’t play a part in electric cars. Even so, the changes above are costly when done after the fact, which is why foreign cars exported to the U.S. in bulk are completed on alternate assembly lines. 

Small-scale imports of EVs for personal use or commercial distribution just aren’t financially feasible for the average import business. 

A line of EVs being manufactured

What is the 25 Year Import Law?

There are exceptions to some vehicle import laws but they won’t do you much good if your goal is to import a modern EV. 

The 25 Year Import Law is an amendment of the 1988 Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act making an exception to allow the import of non-compliant vehicles if they were over 25 years old.  

If you want to import a foreign-made electric car without having to do expensive body and technical alterations, you need to wait a quarter of a century

Considering that practical EVs weren’t even produced until 2010, you’re pretty much out of luck if you want to import the latest models currently available in Japan and Europe. 

If you want to import the British-made Enfield 8000 EV from 1973 though, go for it.  

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards

Provided you are working with a manufacturer willing to mass-produce EVs for export, you need to follow U.S. federal vehicle regulations. 

The safety standards are a by-product of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act aimed at setting a national standard for roadways and vehicles in the United States

It’s gone through a number of revisions over the decades but the main purpose is the same - minimum manufacturing standards meant to minimize the risk of injury and death when accidents happen. 

FMVSS is enforced by the Department of Transportation (DOT), specifically the NHTSA. There are three major categories of safety standards. 

  • Crash avoidance standards
  • Crashworthiness
  • Post-crash survivability

Standards in these categories are updated to keep up with enhanced technology, including that being used in EVs. Before cars or other vehicles can be imported in bulk, they must be FMVSS compliant. 

Major automotive manufacturers in Europe and Japan don’t automatically use these standards. In fact, in a side-by-side comparison, the standards used by some foreign manufacturers actually require higher safety standards for drivers and require additional safety features that protect pedestrians. 

Outside of the U.S., the strictest vehicle safety standards come from

  • RVTA: Japan’s automotive standards
  • General Safety Regulations: Used by manufacturers in the European Union
  • World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (UNECE): Developed by the United Nations
  • CMVSS: Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
  • ADR: Australian Design Rules

Preference for one safety system over another is often a reason buyers cite for wanting one car over another. However, they should recognize that a car built in Japan or Europe is built according to FMVSS if it’s being manufactured specifically for export to U.S. markets. 

Many exceed those standards, but by law, they are not required to. Buying an imported car is not a guarantee of better safety standards. 

Can I Import Electric Vehicles Other Than Cars? 

Although most people think of standard passenger cars when EVs are discussed, there are other types. Some of these other EVs can even be imported without all the regulations surrounding on-road cars and motorcycles. 

A nonroad or recreational EV that does not meet the legal definition of a motor vehicle isn’t bound by any current regulations

If any of the following conditions are met, an EV won’t qualify as a motor vehicle.

  • Can’t accelerate past 25 mph on a level surface
  • Not equipped with reverse abilities, differentials, or other state and federal required safety features
  • Features that would make the vehicle impractical for street use such as abnormal size, military/tactical features, or weaponry

Although these vehicles aren’t bound by the strict regulations surrounding on-road vehicles, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any regulations. 

If you want to bring in nonroad or off-road EVs you should take the time to work with a Customs Broker familiar with vehicle imports. Get to know your product well and have a clear understanding of its design specifications. 

Close up of an EV charging station with electric vehicles in the background

Importing EV Charging Stations

While your ability to enter the EV imports market is limited, the market of EV chargers and components could make up for it. 

While some automotive companies, such as Tesla, manufacture everything for their vehicles, including charge stations, it isn’t realistic for most. It would be like expecting current car makers to also run gas stations and oil refineries - not only is it not realistic, it isn’t necessary.

One of the biggest challenges facing the EV market is the perceived availability of charging stations. There is currently an 18 to 1 ratio of EVs to public charging pumps. Additionally, more than 80% of EV owners say they do the majority of their charging at home 

In comparison, there’s a 2,514 to 1 ratio of fuel vehicles to gas stations and most folks don’t have a gas pump attached to their house. Even so, locations and availability remain hot issues in the market. 

At the moment only Tesla and Hyundai/Kia automakers also produce their own EV charging stations. That leaves a huge market for importers who want to work with manufacturers of commercial and home-based EV chargers. 

Of the top ten EV charge manufacturers in the world, seven are located outside the U.S.

  1. Shell: based in the United Kingdom, and manufactured in Hong Kong
  2. Siemens: based and manufactured in Germany
  3. Schneider Electric: based in France with various overseas manufacturing plants
  4. ABB: based in Switzerland and India
  5. Webasto: based and manufactured in Germany
  6. Hyundai/Kia: based and manufactured in South Korea
  7. EVBox: based in the Netherlands and manufactured in the U.S. 

Aside from Hyundai/Kia, each of these is a company specializing in different electronic components, not specifically in cars. Thanks to the adoption of mostly universal EV plugs, several different types of cars can charge at the same stations. 

Further innovation allows EV chargers to be built with different plug capabilities, much like a gas station might carry different fuel blends. 

The most common plug configurations used in the U.S. today are the

  • CHAdeMO
  • J1772
  • J1772/CCS combo (used for fast charge stations)
  • Tesla (proprietary)

To account for different plugs, especially if a charge station doesn’t have different ones built in, there are adaptors that allow for one type of plug to use another. 

All of these represent import opportunities, especially if you are looking to source from nations that are ramping up their own productions of EV equipment. 

The nations currently leading the EV charger market are

  • China 
  • Japan
  • Hong Kong
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Belgium

China, despite being the global leader in EV chargers and components, is currently focused on exports to India. Due to the continued enforcement of Section 301 tariffs and the difficulty in applying for exceptions, it’s a bigger financial risk.  

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What are the Best Markets for EV Charger Imports?

Your EV charge imports can also be based on your intended domestic audience. Are you targeting individuals, businesses, or possibly local government entities? Each of these groups has different needs. Different levels of EV chargers were created for this reason. 

EV Chargers by Level and Use

LevelCommon UsePower Supply
Level 1 (AC)Home use120 volts / 15 - 20 AMPS
Level 2 (AC)Mixed use (home/commercial)Up to 240 volts / 80 AMPS
Fast Charging (DC)Commercial Up to 480 volts / 300 AMPS
Source: NeoCharge

Fast charging stations have the greatest commercial applications and are in high demand. As EVs try to compete with gas cars for market share, charging times need to go down - and fast charging stations can provide that. 

Your target audience might include

  • Commercial businesses providing charge stations for employees
  • Shopping plazas and malls
  • Local governments looking to establish stations in parks and recreational areas
  • Gas stations looking to diversify their customers 
  • Apartments Complexes 
  • Hotels and resorts

Any location where people spend a significant amount of time is a good choice for the placement of commercial grade, fast charging stations. 

At the moment, EV charge stations are located mostly in cities which boast a greater percentage of electric cars. The ability to set up charge stations in remote locations will be necessary to ensure that the great American road trip tradition can continue. 

Many point out that these stations are powered by diesel generators, and therefore not contributing to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) emission reduction goals. 

However, skeptics should also consider that a single gallon of diesel can provide a significant amount of charge - and therefore miles. By some estimates, that gallon of diesel will go further to power an EV than a standard diesel engine. Many such remote stations could also be powered by alternative power sources, such as solar and wind energy.  

A line of manufactured EV components

Importing EV Components

Once people have purchased their shiny new electric vehicles and outfitted their homes with the latest EV chargers an importer’s job is done, right? No way - just like gas-powered vehicles, EVs need regular maintenance and upkeep. 

Granted, EVs tend to need fewer maintenance services than their fuel-using counterparts, but they are still machines with various moving parts. Standard wear and tear replacement components apply and that is where quality import services play a role.

Like EV chargers, these components tend to be much easier to get compared to importing an entire car. Many of these parts are even used in EVs manufactured stateside. 

The expansion of the EV industry also means the expansion of outsourcing. Motors, batteries, and all the things used to build them need to come from somewhere. 

Check out our article on Importing Electronics to USA for more information. 

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Motors

At the moment, there are three main types of motors used in fully electric cars and in hybrid electric cars. The majority use a combination of these engines and new modifications are continually in development. 

The current flux state of motor development does mean that importing actual motors really isn’t viable. Most automakers manufacture their motors on site. Importers can work with company supply chain managers to make sure they properly source the needed motor components

As EVs become mainstream, mass production of motors needs to be possible to both increase efficiency and bring down production costs. 

There are currently three types of EV motors in use. 

  • Induction/Asynchronous Motors
  • Permanent Magnet Motors
  • Current-Excited Motors

Although the power-generation systems are different, the mechanisms in motion are the same for each. There are pros and cons to each, but from an importer’s perspective, that means there are a variety of components that companies need to use - especially if they work with more than one type of motor.

Common components needed to build EV motors and engines include

As automakers, engine enthusiasts, and tech companies continue coming up with lighter engines that use less raw materials than ever, importers should keep a close eye on them. It’s the only way to know for sure which materials are showing improved performance and therefore, which ones importers should focus on. 

Batteries

A good battery is really what makes or breaks the future of EV vehicles. In the eyes of the automotive industry that means distance. The Federal Regulation for Electric Car Battery Warranties states that an EV battery must come with a warranty of eight years or 100,000 miles

Considering that the battery alone represents about 25% of the value of the vehicle means that automakers want to get this one right. 

The EPA list of currently accepted materials for rechargeable batteries includes:

  • Lithium-ion
  • Nickel metal hydride
  • Lithium cobalt
  • Lead-Acid
  • Nickel cadmium
  • Lithium Polymer
  • LiFePO4, Lithium iron phosphate
  • Zinc-air full cell

Like engines, battery development is in a state of flux. Major companies like Panasonic and LG are investing heavily in their research and development. 

EV battery manufacturers are ranked according to how many gigawatt hours (GWh) worth of batteries they produce in a single year. As a point of reference, 10 GWh is enough to power 150,000 EVs. 

Top EV Battery Manufacturers by Annual Output

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL)96.7 GWh
LG Energy Solutions60.2 GWh
Panasonic 36.1 GWh
BYD26.3 GWh
SK On17.0 GWh
Source: Saur Energy International

Based in either China, Japan, or South Korea, these companies are currently dominating the EV battery market in terms of output. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others. 

The most fuel-efficient gas cars in the U.S. can currently get anywhere from 35 to 42 miles per gallon depending on driving conditions and vehicle maintenance. With an average tank size of 12 gallons, that means anywhere from 420 to 500 miles on a single fill-up. EV makers want to be able to meet and exceed that. 

With a market worth estimated to hit $360 billion by the end of the decade, there are hundreds of start-up companies eager for discovery all around the world. An importer in the right place at the right time can get ahead of the curve with the right sources. 

These companies aren’t just focused on battery production and optimization, but on management as well. As EV cars get older, battery maintenance, management, and replacement will open up further industries. 

There are start-ups focusing on:

  • Lithium-ion batteries
  • Solid-state batteries
  • Supercapacitors
  • Battery management

Companies that are able to produce batteries that last longer, perform better, and can be produced in a manner that is cost effective are going to be in high demand. 

Of course, these high-capacity, high-voltage batteries aren’t the only ones needed in EVs. Just like standard gas vehicles, EVs also require a low-voltage 12-volt standard car battery to run basic electronics like turning signals and cabin lights. 

A digital screen inside of an electric vehicle displaying the battery level

On-Board Chargers

For batteries to be charged, most electric vehicles come with an onboard charger (OBC). An OBC is directly connected to the vehicle’s battery and allows cars to be charged with either alternating current (AC) or direct currents (DC).

In terms of efficiency and convenience, an OBC means that a vehicle can be charged at home with a standard AC outlet and at DC rapid charge stations. Without an OBC, cars could only be charged on one or the other. 

As with other components, automakers outsource the production of OCBs to electronics and battery manufacturing bodies. Like other components, the design of OCBs is often changing, though slightly less so. 

The concept of converters that allow AC power units to use DC power isn’t new. That also means that importers are more likely to find a wider range of companies able to provide OBCs for electric cars. 

Additionally, OBCs are manufactured for specific types of electric vehicles, so the market extends beyond personal cars. Both power output and vehicle type determine the needed OBC. 

Power Output Ranges for OCBs are: 

  • Less than 10 kilowatts (kw)
  • 10 - 20 kw
  • More than 20 kw

Vehicle types that may have different OBC requirements include: 

  • Passenger cars
  • Buses and vans
  • Medium duty vehicles (10,001 to 26,000 lbs)
  • Heavy duty vehicles (>26,001 lbs)
  • Agricultural tractors
  • Construction equipment
  • Mining equipment
  • Boats and ships

Finally, the other factor affecting which OBC is needed is propulsion type. Those types include:

  • BEV: battery electric vehicle
  • HEV: hybrid electric vehicle
  • PHEV: plug-in hybrid electric vehicle

Believe it or not, these are just the basics. As the capabilities of electric motors continue to expand, they will be used in even more industries. The possibilities for the development and import of related equipment are endless. 

Electric Power Control Units

It may look like any other standard circuit board chip, but this small component is what controls and manages the overall operation of an EV. The electric power control unit (EPCU) contains the wiring and circuit chips needed for three major functions of an electric car

In most EVs, this sealed unit controls the: 

  • Inverter: This is vital for changing the vehicle’s battery output from DC to AC. The controlled conversion is what allows the driver to control motor speed through acceleration and deceleration. 
  • Low voltage DC-DC converter (LDC): Aside from the high voltage battery that runs the car’s motor, all EVs also have a low voltage 12V battery that runs standard electronics. LDCs allow the high-voltage batteries to be safely converted for use.  
  • Vehicle Control Unit (VCU): Controls a vehicle’s motor control, regenerative braking, air conditioning, and the power supply for any onboard electronics.  

Really, the EPCU is three different mechanisms in one small package. Each component of that package needs to be carefully assembled. 

Much like the motors, the EPCU’s are often put together in a manufacturing plant operated by the automaker. However, all the various chips and wires that go inside it are sourced from elsewhere. 

The benefit here is that the technology has existed for quite some time. The majority of cars built in the last 30 years have electric control units (ECU). While they might not be as sophisticated as the ones used in EVs, it has been easier to develop the needed modifications. 

Unfortunately, that means that EPCU manufacturing is dealing with the same semiconductor chip shortage that the rest of the automotive industry is for their ECUs. 

An importer who can find manufacturers for those semiconductors could find themselves in a very lucrative position. 

USA Customs Clearance Provides Your EV Import Answers

New technologies create amazing opportunities for importers. They also bring up a greater range of questions. USA Customs Clearance is here to help you navigate the somewhat murky waters of new tech imports, including EVs. 

Speak with one of our experienced and licensed Customs Consultants about any import question you have - from HTS codes to customs bonds - and find out where you really stand. 

We will work with you to obtain:

See what’s possible today by calling us at (855) 912-0406 to speak with someone directly. Already charged up and want to get the ball rolling? Arrange a session with one of our Customs Consultants and be on your way to EV import greatness.

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