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Buildings are shrouded in haze and smog in Beijing's central business district. (2008 file photo). (JASON LEE/REUTERS)
Buildings are shrouded in haze and smog in Beijing's central business district. (2008 file photo). (JASON LEE/REUTERS)

The Green Highway

The harsh realities of electric vehicles in China Add to ...

When I arrived in Beijing at the end of August, the air pollution wasn’t too bad. The sky was grey, but the smog was thin enough that you could see the tops of most tall buildings. There are many days when you can’t see across the street. I was told the day before had been windy with heavy rain and that had cleared out a lot of the particulate in the air.

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But depending on the weather is not the solution to the air quality problems of this traffic-clogged city of nearly 20 million people. The Chinese government has had high hopes and several Five Year Plans to switch the automotive fleet from fossil fuel to electric power, but the results are negligible.

The central government recently reintroduced a program of cash incentives for purchasers of new all-electric vehicles, but it’s proving to be a hard sell to skeptical consumers. China is now the world’s largest automotive market, where last year 19.3 million new vehicles were produced. Even with generous cash subsidies last year, Chinese consumers bought exactly 11,375 electric cars, according to government statistics.

China had targeted having 500,000 hybrid and electric cars on its roads by 2015 and five million by 2020. The likelihood of meeting those goals is slim. The issues in China are the same as in North America: the lack of standardized charging infrastructure, the higher sticker price compared to gasoline-powered cars and the limited driving range provided by present battery technology.

China began rolling out Five Year Plans in 2001 to transform its auto industry to become the global leader in alternative power cars. It was explained to me that, as late entrants to the automotive industry, it intended to skip the combustion engine phase that the West was stuck in for a hundred years and be the leaders in electric.

It’s not so easily done. The Chinese are staying away in droves from electric cars because they are generally 30 per cent more expensive than conventional fuel cars. Even though the central government will provide as much as 60,000 yuan (approximately $10,000) toward the purchase of an all-electric car, the Chinese prefer an Audi or a Buick or another prestigious western brand for the same amount of money.

At the Frankfurt auto show in September, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said that China is the future of the electric car. Together, Renault and Nissan have sold more that 100,000 all-electric cars worldwide, the majority of them Nissan Leafs. Ghosn is banking on a big increase in demand from China, but it hasn’t happened.

In the meantime, Beijing is attempting to deal with its air pollution problems by keeping 20 per cent of cars off the road each weekday based on the last digit of the license plate and “restricting” the number of cars allowed in Beijing to a mere six million.

China, like the rest of the world, needs to see major breakthroughs in battery technology to ensure the viability of electric cars. Maybe the Chinese, who have registered thousands of patents in the field, will make that breakthrough.

As an Audi official told me this summer when the company shelved its R8 e-tron all-electric sports car, “We need batteries with twice the energy density at half the cost.” Until battery breakthroughs occur, don’t expect too many sunny days in Beijing.

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