China’s Electric Car

Posted April 12, 2009, at 6:52 p.m.

China is making a big push to become the world’s leading producer of electric cars, trucks and buses. The project carries major pluses for the country’s economy and its ranking in the world, but also some serious minuses.

The hybrid electric plug-in car, called the F3DM, is already being marketed in China for about $22,000 and is slated to go on sale in the United States and Europe in 2011.

The manufacturer, BYD Co., headquartered in the southern coastal city of Shenzhen, has a lot going for it. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave the industry a send-off two years ago by his unusual appointment of a non-Communist as minister of science and technology. Wan Gang, a former Audi engineer in Germany, already had led Chinese research on electric vehicles. And the American billionaire Warren Buffett has invested in a 10 percent stake in the company.

The Chinese government is offering subsidies of up to $8,800 to taxi fleets and local government agencies for each hybrid or all-electric vehicle they purchase. Electric car-charging stations are to be set up in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

The F3DM can run for 62 miles on batteries and has a small gasoline engine for backup, according to an AHN News report. The short distance between charges won’t matter much for Chinese drivers who use cars mainly for short commutes and only rarely for intercity driving.

Bloomberg News quoted Chairman Wang Chuanfu as saying at a launching ceremony in December: “The development of electric-powered vehicles is the best way for the Chinese auto industry to surpass other leading countries.” Company officials said it planned to sell as many as 10,000 of the cars this year in China.

The Chinese electric car’s likely competition will be from the Japanese hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, later from General Motor’s Chevrolet Volt, and possibly from Nissan Motor Co., which is considering introducing an electric car in China.

On the minus side are questions of whether the Chinese electric-car industry can really reduce its urban pollution and dependence on Middle East oil.

The New York Times quoted a report that a turn to electric cars would reduce greenhouse emissions by only 19 percent. Other industries continue to rely mainly on coal burning, which cloaks most Chinese cities in heavy smog.

Increased traffic congestion looks inevitable as millions of Chinese shift from bicycles to automobiles. Traffic jams so far are rare in Shanghai, which bans trucks from city streets except at night.

As it looks to the future, China will do well to keep improving its mass transit services and develop clean-burning technology for its continuing use of coal along with building electric cars.

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