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

Helveston, J.P., Wang, Y., Karplus, V.J., & Fuchs, E.R.H. (2019) “Institutional Complementarities: The Origins of Experimentation in China’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle Industry” Research Policy. 48(1), pg. 206-222. DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2018.08.006

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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 to 2016 (plus monthly data from 2010 to 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.


  title={Institutional complementarities: The origins of experimentation in China’s plug-in electric vehicle industry},
  author={Helveston, John P and Wang, Yanmin and Karplus, Valerie J and Fuchs, Erica RH},
  journal={Research Policy},
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