Electric Dreams

The end of March saw the launch of Denza the BYD Daimler joint venture to produce electric cars in China for the Chinese market. However, the question is whether there is a market for such cars in China.

One government target calls for there to be a million electric vehicles on the road by the end of 2015. However, 2011 figures from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology put the number of alternative energy use vehicles in use at about 10,000 with only 1,000 of them in the hands of private owners.

Currently the leading Chinese city for electric vehicles is Shenzhen. In addition to e6s plying the streets as taxis, there is a fleet of BYD supplied electric buses. Hangzhou has also seen some success with a fleet of electric taxis, mainly in the form of Zotye Multiplans. Shenzhen and Hangzhou are among the 25 cities participating in the electric vehicle demonstration program.

The programme stems from the “Ten Cities Thousand Vehicles” programme which launched in July 2009 and aimed to give new energy vehicles a 10% market share by the end of 2012. However a report released by China’s First Institute of Electric Propulsion shows that even the demonstration programme has only achieved 38% of its deployment goals. And largely these appear to have been used as a way of supporting car manufacturers based in those cities.

It seems though that many manufacturers are jumping on the electric vehicle bandwagon. In addition to domestic manufacturers a number of the new JV brands that have been created have an emphasis on new energy vehicles. Recently it was announced that the Nissan Leaf would be sold under the Venucia brand in China and FAW-VW’s Kai Li is thought to be largely for electric vehicles.

Whilst there has been limited success in some of the cities with sales to fleet users such as taxi companies so far there has been no real uptake by private customers. This is perhaps not surprising given the price of many of the cars. When finally launched for private sales the BYD e6 came in at Y369,800 which is firmly on a par price wise with many luxury vehicles. Garel Rhys, Professor Emeritus University of Cardiff, speaking at the 2011 Global Auto Forum in Chengdu mentioned that in the UK the Leaf is around twice the price of the similarly sized Ford Focus. It seems that in most countries this price difference is going to prevent widespread adoption to only the most committed environmentalists. Even with increasing fuel prices you would have to drive a very high mileage to justify the added cost.

Then there are further complications with range and infrastructure. Most of the cars have sufficient range for city driving such as the daily commute but go much further, say inter-city, and there start to be problems. One solution to this is to create interchangeable battery packs, a method used by the taxi version of the Zotye Multiplan. The consumer version of the Multiplan does not use this and it would be difficult to ever implement for anyone other than fleet users due to different sized cars and the unlikelihood of manufacturers ever agreeing on common standards.

In China most people in cities live in apartments with no dedicated parking space for their car. In fact, until recently parking wasn’t even much of a consideration when apartments were built. This creates a problem when it comes to installing recharging points for electric cars and how the electricity is paid for.

There is the additional issue of where all the electricity will come from. China already struggles at peak times with producing sufficient electricity to meet demand. If the one million vehicle target were met it would be impossible for China’s current generating capacity to cope. It is all very well to say that cars will be charged at off peak times but typically people are likely to plug in their cars as soon as they return home, or even when they get to their office.

Currently China produces most of its electricity from coal, which is a particularly dirty form of production. By going electric you are simply shifting pollution from that produced locally to that emitted by a power station. Unless, that is, the electricity is produced by renewable energy or from nuclear power stations. Based on 2007 figures for Chinese electricity production emissions, the CO2 figure for a BYD e6 would be 163g/km. This is the same or worse than many medium sized internal combustion engined cars. Of course, it is an overly simplified calculation just based on the emissions created by on vehicle energy usage and doesn’t take into account such things as transporting fuel, etc.

Professor Rhys in his speech noted that Henry Ford said in 1910 that “the future is the battery.” More than a century later we’re still waiting for it. With increasing efficiency from internal combustion engines the big switch may still be some time off.

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