Expanding the hybrid and electric car market in China will be a challenging task, experts say. There's not yet a robust infrastructure to support the environmentally friendly vehicles, like the Suzuki Swift Range Extender Hybrid, seen at the Shanghai auto show April 20.
The boom in car ownership in China has brought with it many problems familiar to Americans: bad traffic, of course, but also more pollution. So the Chinese government and the auto companies are trying to push a new generation of environmentally friendly car.
But it's not easy.
Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of global electrification, has the somewhat unenviable task of persuading a Chinese public in the first flush of gasoline-powered capitalism to park the Hummer and roll out the Ford hybrid.
Eighty percent of car buyers last year were first-time purchasers, and Gioia is under no illusions that getting China to go green will be easy.
"One of the challenges we have in China is not that electrification will come; it's that our desire to have it tomorrow can't be met because the customer has to be willing," Gioia says. "Here in China, the second large challenge is infrastructure."
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Green car technology is still in its infancy in China, and there's little uniformity in the way of infrastructure to support the vehicles, like this concept car with solar panels, made by Roewe, seen at the Shanghai auto show.
Green car technology is still in its infancy in China, and there's little uniformity in the way of infrastructure to support the vehicles, like this concept car with solar panels, made by Roewe, seen at the Shanghai auto show. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
The challenge of infrastructure is that most urban Chinese people live in high-rise apartment blocks, so charging electric or hybrid cars is difficult.
Ford is rolling out demonstration models, though none is yet on sale in China. Chinese companies have jumped into the green car business, too. One company, from the southern city of Shenzhen, is BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams.
Paul Lin, senior marketing manager for BYD, says he thinks the dreams of Chinese drivers are less entrenched than their gas-guzzling American counterparts. Chinese are different from Americans and Europeans, he says.
"You people are familiar with cars and petroleum combined together," Lin says. "For Chinese, we don't have those deep habits to using that kind of car, so we can be easy to change."
Not Enough Government Control?
Inside the cavernous exhibition hall at the Shanghai auto show, it seems there's a presentation of a new model of green car almost every minute, usually with a tall, beautiful female model draped across its hood. But even tall, beautiful female models may not be enough to persuade the Chinese public.
"The green technology is not mature enough yet," says 25-year-old visitor Tang Xuejun. "I won't consider buying a green car for another four or five years."
Guo Bing, 30, won't be buying an electric car, either, because he has nowhere to charge it.
In addition to general suspicions of new technology and logistics of where to plug the cars in, there is also a huge problem with Chinese government oversight and regulation.
John Zeng of auto consulting firm J.D. Power in Shanghai says the government wants to see people buy more cars generally to boost industrial growth, but there are a whole array of different standards for charging stations, batteries and all of the infrastructure needed for the green car industry.
"If you want new industry to grow up, you need clear guidance," Zeng says. "If there are no standards, then if you are the consumer, you buy a BYD e6 in Shenzhen and want to drive this car to other cities, like to Shanghai, you'll have big trouble — you have a different charging station."
In other words, Zeng says, the supposedly all-powerful one-party state is not intervening and controlling enough.
An Auto Paradox
From an environmental point of view, there is some hope in the fact that most Chinese only drive an average of 5,000 miles a year. The government discourages people from driving longer distances through huge tolls on national highways, Zeng says, even as the government builds up an extraordinary high-speed rail network.
"Three years ago, when I traveled from Beijing to Tianjin, we drove a car. It took more than three hours. Last year, I traveled again on the high-speed railway — 28 minutes," Zeng says. "So the government is trying to build up enough railway system to reduce the reliance on the car."
Encouraging people to buy cars but then encouraging them not to drive them is one of the more delicious paradoxes of modern China. It looks likely that it will continue to be a crucial tactic in the near future, while the electric and hybrid market in China struggles to take off.