China Should Skip Internal Combustion Altogether
If you’re a car industry fanatic like many of us are, you may recall that in the early days of the U.S. auto industry, there were far more than only three companies (or a few more if you count startups like Tesla) selling new cars in the U.S. Long-forgotten nameplates like Maxwell, Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker, Rambler, Packard, Nash, and others eventually either consolidated their operations into a larger automaker, or shut their doors outright. China’s auto industry today in many ways parallels the early days of its U.S. counterpart – many players, not all strong, and not all good, vying for ever-growing pieces of a pie that’s not growing as quickly as everyone there would like. On top of that, pollution in many Chinese cities is abysmal. Thanks to more and more cars, motorbikes, factories, and electricity generation, air quality in places like Shanghai is almost un-breathable. So what’s the solution?
The city of Shijiazhuang in China’s Hebei province (about 300 km southwest of Beijing) announced that it will restrict new-car registrations to 100,000 this year in an effort to combat pollution. For 2015, that quota will be cut to 90,000 cars. Also, families will be limited to two cars. Shijiazhuang joins a roster of other Chinese cities that have taken similar steps to reduce the number of cars on their roads, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Guiyang. Municipal authorities in those cities are restricting sales while simultaneously encouraging automakers to build factories in their jurisdictions, creating a curious balancing act.
The funny thing is, if China is really, really, serious about curbing pollution, it should immediately require that the second car in every household must be zero emissions – either an EV or a fuel cell vehicle. China’s auto industry is already seeing some signs of consolidation, and the central government is encouraging it. Is there any reason why China’s auto industry development curve should take 50 years the way the U.S. industry’s did? China’s automakers – both domestic and joint ventures with large, western automakers – have the benefit of being able to purchase the latest technology on the open market rather than needing to develop it on their own.
We all know that the electrification of the automobile is most likely going to be the future state for the auto industry around the world. As soon as car battery technology catches up to internal combustion technology in terms of range, cost, and refueling/recharging, I anticipate that EVs will take off in popularity. All things being equal (which they admittedly are not even close to today), wouldn’t you rather have a lower-maintenance car that produces zero tailpipe emissions than the same vehicle that emits CO2 and pollution into the atmosphere?
China’s one-party communist government is not something that Americans wish to emulate, and for many good reasons. But in this case, China has the ability to do something like California has done – requiring a certain percentage of cars sold be EVs – on a much larger scale because there is no discussion and little dissent. China’s leaders do not have to worry about pandering for votes in an election that occurs every two years; they have the opportunity to think about big picture things, and eliminating the need to incrementally make changes. (Do you think that California’s CARB will be satisfied with 15% EVs? It will be 20% next, followed by 25%, then who knows what’s next.)
Now, all the EVs in the world won’t do much for China’s urban pollution problem if the power to charge them comes from dirty, coal-fired power plants. This means that China needs to redouble its efforts to find cleaner energy sources for its power generation plants. No more coal-burning plants; wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear should be the wave of the future in China in terms of electricity generation.
Then there’s the matter of infrastructure. Here in the U.S., we need to dramatically expand EV infrastructure to allow high-speed charging at many more points than are currently available – as in probably 500 times more EV charge points than currently exist, and that’s just a start. Were China to implement an EV-heavy strategy, it would need even more than we need in the U.S. Every store, mall, office building, doctor’s office, government building, recreation facility, etc. should have an adequate number of charge points. There should also be plenty of capacity to add more of them as demand increases when more EVs hit the road.
Infrastructure is more about just charge points, though. Put simply, China needs more roads. As rural residents migrate to the cities for better opportunities (and for pension eligibility), cities become more crowded, traffic growth outpaces road capacity, and gridlock ensues. Gridlock is the enemy of both drivers and haters of air pollution, so something has to be done to reduce that as well.
Another option could always be public transportation, but that’s not exactly what many newly-mobile Chinese middle-class citizens probably want to hear. Certainly there aren’t many middle-class Americans who want to embrace public transit. China has spent – and continues to spend – heavily on high-speed rail, both as an economic link between its thriving cities and its poorer rural areas, and as a way to keep the economy rolling with government-created demand.
The combination of China’s state-controlled media, economy, and government with that country’s immediate need to reduce air pollution, while stimulating the economy with new roads, bridges, EV charge points, and other infrastructure improvements may actually make a dent in China’s giant air pollution problem. And if that happens, we can all breathe easier.