August 9, 2022

Green Column: Electric Cars Remain Tough Sell in China

The pilot project, which could be replicated in other cities, underpins China’s ambitious plans to put at least half a million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015.

The country is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — which scientists say are causing global warming — from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. With the largest and fastest-growing auto market in the world, China’s carbon footprint can only grow.

To bolster China’s energy security, Beijing has pronounced electric vehicles a top priority. It has earmarked $1.5 billion annually for the industry for the next 10 years in the hope that it can transform the country into one of the leading producers of clean vehicles.

But even with government support and the enthusiasm of electric-taxi customers, challenges remain if electric vehicles are to gain broader acceptance and widespread use.

Charging stations are few and far between, repair shops are hard to find and the cars are costly. Even after generous government support, a Shenzhen electric taxi costs 80 percent more than the Volkswagen Santana that ordinarily cruises the streets of Shenzhen.

“The electric car is still too expensive, and we ended up paying a lot more than for a Santana, even with government subsidies,” said Du Jun, general manager of Pengcheng E-taxi, the operator participating in the pilot project.

Local automakers like SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Motor Group have pledged large investments in greener vehicles. Global automakers, including BMW and Nissan Motor, are also working with local governments to roll out such vehicles — in these two cases the Mini E and the Leaf, respectively.

China’s investment in the electric-vehicle industry has no comparable counterpart in the United States, although the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would allocate $2.9 billion for a program to help develop the infrastructure for widespread use of electric cars.

Germany’s cabinet agreed on plans in May to encourage the country’s electric auto sector with billions of euros in subsidies, aiming to have one million of the cars on the road by 2020. The subsidies will double state support for research and development to €2 billion, or $2.9 billion, through 2013.

For China, however, hitting its electric-vehicle targets will mean quickly winning market acceptance for an untested technology.

“I think it’s going to be a very, very long time, because the Chinese consumer, at the end of the day, is very pragmatic and wants a reliable car with a gasoline engine,” said Michael Dunne, president of the industry consulting firm Dunne Co. in Hong Kong. “They don’t want to be the ones experimenting.”

But he said that government fleets and bus companies were more likely to buy electric vehicles.

The Chinese government picked Shenzhen, along with 12 other cities, in 2009 to lead the migration to green vehicles. Shenzhen and Hangzhou are the only ones attempting to establish e-taxi fleets.

The state-controlled Pengcheng E-Taxi, partly owned by BYD, a major domestic manufacturer of green vehicles that is backed by Warren E. Buffett, was incorporated in March 2010. Fifty e6 cabs made by BYD hit the roads in the city three months later.

“People are really interested in the car,” said Zeng Xiweng, one of the top drivers in the company. “Over 90 percent of customers start asking questions, once they get in.”

“And it’s not just me,” he added. “All my colleagues have similar experiences as well.”

Daniel Li, a Shenzhen resident, recently took a ride in an electric taxi, one of the red cars with a wavy white band around the body that have been operating in the city for more than a year.

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