EV Growth: Challenges and Opportunities

This article was published simultaneously on sinograduate.com,a website promoting education in and about China, providing an interface to learn more, and be more involved and collaborative on China.

Since China entered the WTO in 2001, the automotive industry has grown exponentially. From two million vehicles sold in 2001, against nearly 19 million in the US, sales in China grew to 18.5 million units in 2011, more than vehicle sales in the US, making China the largest automotive market in the world. The Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation estimates that if growth continues at current rates of 10-11% per year, China could be selling 30 million vehicles annually by 2015. Providing energy for those vehicles may prove a challenge even greater than that of providing food for the nation’s 1.6 billion residents.

No conversation on the auto industry in China is complete without a discussion of electric vehicles (EV), whether they are pure electric or hybridized vehicles that utilize electricity from the grid.. Indeed, the world is watching as China’s automotive industry transforms from a backward, technical laggard into a world-leading battery-powered, grid-enabled juggernaut. Chinese officials are brimming with confidence that China can take this technical challenge as a way to leap past the rest of the world’s auto industry into a clean, next-generation mode of transportation for its own people, indeed for all people around the world.

There are different views on how China might progress with such an ambition. A survey by Pike Research in 2011 presents the positive scenario. Among 55 automotive vendors developing electric-enabled vehicles of some form surveyed, China was expected to be the leader in this technology by 2015. The National Development and Reform Commission has already set the target that China should be producing one million new energy vehicles by 2015. These include battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, range extended EVs, mild hybrids (such as the first generation of the Toyota Prius) and natural gas vehicles.

The second scenario paints China as a follower of the successful technologies of frontier innovators. This is based on the idea that China has a limited recent history of innovation, and will fall into the same trap with EVs as it has fallen into in the rest of the automotive sector, in turn, failing to achieve its goals.

In favour of the positive scenario is that China is creating a huge incubator for international cooperation on innovation in EV technology and a test bed for implementation that no other country is likely able to rival. Researchers, companies, countries and international institutions from around the world are coming to China to build partnerships. In parallel, China’s government is imposing stricter requirements for localization of production that is expected to result in sharing, transfer and innovation of new technology and commercialization in the long run.

An example of an international partnership is the Shanghai Auto-General Motors joint battery research center, which brings together US and Chinese industrial research talent in one place to produce batteries and other EV technologies. This has the two-way benefits of bringing international expertise to China, as well as integrating Chinese EV suppliers with the global market served by this global company.

A second example is the US-China Clean Energy Research Center – Clean Vehicle Consortium (CERC-CVC). This is an international research center aimed not just at revolutionizing the way people travel, but also the way academics and industry collaborate internationally. Unlike conventional international academic exchange, this partnership is seeing the development of joint work plans, international work on the same projects, jointly written papers, guaranteed rights to international property in each others’ territories, and an overall emphasis on collaboration and complementary research. The collaboration, led by the Ministry of Science and Technology and China’s Tsinghua University on the China side and the Department of Energy and University of Michigan in the US, is planning to bring collaboration between governments, companies and governments on related new technologies to unprecedented levels.

Likewise, the Sino-German Partnership on EV development, like the CERC-CVC, is bringing together companies, government and academics from China and Europe. The focus of regular conferences and the sharing and implementation of academic and pilot research projects is on standardization and implementation of EV technology.

With institutions of all types from around the world coming to China to compete for space in China’s huge automotive market, China is increasingly positioned at the center of innovation on electric vehicle technology. The combination of the arrival of new ideas from around the world together with the scale of China’s future transport energy requirements under the optimistic scenario could bring the conversion of new ideas into reality. China’s pilot city format, whereby a small group of cities is chosen to experiment with new ideas, provides to reveal potential for what works – and does not work – for China, relatively quickly. From this eventually the industrial structure including energy supply structure to provide clean and convenient transportation to the masses in China could arise, and in turn be transferred to other parts of the world.

The electric vehicle industry is not the only industry where these collaborative relationships are coalescing in China. Indeed, it is merely one example of the many industries where such international coalescence is occurring. Nanotechnology, wireless communication, biotechnology, clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology and other industries are seeing key collaborations forming in China that in many ways can not occur elsewhere around the world. This does not isolate former more exclusive research leaders. Rather it changes the pattern of research clustering, adding momentum to the need for breakthroughs.

Those interested in energy sustainability for future generations should hope that these research partnerships produce breakthroughs that honorably benefit not just all the immediate partners involved, but which also improve sustainable mobility people everywhere.

Favorite Motorbikes Scooting Back in Beijing – what are the motorcycle rules?

Beijing CBD Motorcycles

All shot in one day: Motorcycles on Guanghua Road

It seems that there are a lot more gasoline powered motorbikes on Beijing’s roads this year with the coming of Beijing’s automobile license plate limits — and I have become quite curious about their legality, as well as about their environmental impact.

When I first came to Beijing in 2006, it seemed that there were significantly fewer motorbikes here than where I had spent 2005 — in Changsha.  In fact, in my memory, besides 3-wheeled vehicles, there were practically no motorbikes.  This was reinforced for me in 2008 when one of my foreign colleagues had her motorbike confiscated by traffic police.  Around the time of the Olympics, I’d say there were only electric 2-wheelers on the road.  I could be wrong, but I’ve got a pretty strong feeling about that.

Recently, another friend of mine stopped using her motorbike because she wasn’t allowed to fill it inside the city.  This got me looking into the rules.

According to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau, some questions have been rolling in about legality of motorbikes in Beijing City.  The answers are as follows (translated from Chinese):

Motorcycles are managed according to the following rules in Beijing:

  • On Changan Jie (from Xinxing Bridge to Guomao Bridge), motorcycles are forbidden from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm;
  • Motorcycles are always forbidden on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th ring roads;
  • Motorcycles with a 京B license plate, and all motorcycles with license plates from outside of Beijing are forbidden from operating inside the 4th ring road (not including the side-roads)

This leaves only the 京A license plates allowed for use within the 4th ring road, with the limitations listed above.

So what does it take to get a 京A license plate for a motorcycle in Beijing? That’s tricky — Beijing stopped issuing 京A license plates in the 1990s!  So, you’ve got to make your way down to motorcycle markets in southern Beijing where a second-hand plate will cost you RMB 12,000 — about the cost of a motorcycle.  The prices for 京A plates have risen from RMB 10,000 last year, and 9,000 the year before that.  It’s no wonder that of the 25 motorcycles I photographed yesterday (and put in the collage above), only 2 of them had 京A plates!

So why not e-bikes?  Aren’t they the hottest thing in Asia these days?  As one motorcycle salesman said, compared with the electric bicycle, motorcycles can go further distances and have longer lives – up to 10 years with proper maintenance, while electric bikes generally last for three years.  A friend of mine who bought a motorcycle (and who used to own an e-bike) also said that he hated dragging the 14 kg battery around to charge it at night.  Gasoline is just so much more portable!

The license plate limitation policy in Beijing is having far-reaching effects on the automotive industry in Beijing.  People need practical vehicles, and e-bikes seem to be not able to fill their requirements.  Gasoline-powered motorbikes are practical, but do not have policies to support them, resulting in a mostly illegal fleet of motorbikes on Beijing’s roads.  This means everyone is just waiting for the day when Beijing’s traffic police have an “Illegal Motorbike” campaign and clean them all off the road again.

Traffic management in an overpopulated city is not an easy issue to deal with.  Planning has to be smart, flexible and practical for urban residents.  Is Beijing up to the challenge?

Lone rider

Transformers taking China

The battle of Autobots vs. Decepticons is heating up in Beijing.  As witnessed on cars of every brand and class, Chinese drivers are loving the Transformers decals — and making their allegiances known.  Not a day goes by now that we don’t see Autobots and Decepticons driving around, marking their territory, letting the public know which team they are on, and letting us all know that we should be afraid.

I will expand my collection of these wonderful decals as time goes by (and when I get my phone back), but for the time being, I leave this picture with you to enjoy your “Punishment and Endurement” by our Decepticon police overlords.

Deceptapolice: To Punish and Endure. Watch out, Beijing. Transformer Wars a'comin!

Electric Car in the Beijing Wild — Caught on Camera!

Outside of car shows and research labs, I never see electric cars on Beijing’s roads.  Well, that all changed one fateful evening in July (sorry it’s taken time to get this online).  There it was, parked outside Ritan Park along Beijing’s Guanghua Road.

Beijing Car in the Beijing Wild

A teeny-tiny EV parked outside Ritan Park, July 2011

As you can see from this picture, this is not a big normal-sized car, this must be one of those low-speed EVs that we are hearing about.  I don’t recognize the brand — looks like it’s a little manufacturer from Hebei called Wanlian-Dawo.  This little puppy goes 30 km/h with a range of 80-150 km with 3 kW of power. It seems this company has no certification for producing cars, so…I guess this is not a car, but two electric bikes duct-taped together with a shell on top.  It also has no license plate.

I’m afraid its range is not far enough, however — the next day, I rode past this same place, and the car was still there.  Either the driver was drunk when he/she left Maggies and took a taxi home, or this little car ran out of power and had to be towed to a charging location.

These are the risks of driving an EV!

Civilized Chaoyang Traffic Control – Manual style

It has been a while since I updated the blog, and I think I’ll start an update with some supergreat news.  In preparation for the October 1 “National Holiday”, Chaoyang District has been under strict inspections and shaping up.

That means that there are suddenly hundreds or thousands of volunteers available to control intersections across Chaoyang district.  From the east second ring road to east 3rd ring road, there are at least 25 young students controlling intersections, holding banners to block pedestrians and cyclists for entering the intersection, and to keep everyone in their bike lanes, sidewalks and turning lanes.  It is quite a project. And it is impressive that students suddenly have time to be standing around on the street.

Volunteers manage intersection - Civilized Chaoyang!

You can see in the picture above, they are using physical barriers to block cyclists from moving into the intersection.  There is also a table for water and volunteer management under the umbrella there.  What you can’t see in this relatively poorly taken picture is that there are also two police officers at the intersection, there are the regular traffic control people (the guy in the red hat, for example), and 3-4 students.  Amazing resources this country has.  人多力量大! (More people, greater power! — Mao Zedong).