China’s central government has tweaked its approach to growing the country’s New Energy Vehicles segment (see my blog of September 20 on latest NEV policy), but it still aims to have tens of thousands of battery electric and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles on the road in a few years.
If you don’t think China is committed to EVs for the long haul, consider this. In September of 2012, an “EV Experience Center” was established at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The Party School is where promising candidates for leadership roles in China go to debate ideas. (The Central Party School has a Facebook page, though FB is blocked in China. Can you say irony?)
Of course they don’t debate any ideas in public. But they can at least get it out of their system at the Party School. Now, they can also drive an electric vehicle, which gives them some hand’s on experience as they debate what role EVs (or in Chinese parlance, NEVS or New Energy Vehicles) should play in China’s auto industry.
Meanwhile, local governments are doing their part to promote EVs with additional subsidies and incentives as well as research and development and data collection. The efforts extend down to the district level. One reason for district involvement is that it gives the districts a shot at some of those fat central government ministry budgets. That doesn’t mean what the districts are doing isn’t valuable, however.
Take Jiading District, part of the huge Shanghai metropolis. Jiading has had itself designated an “EV International Pilot Zone” within Shanghai, which is an “EV International Pilot City.” A few weeks ago, I visited Jiading and met with Lucas Cao Yue, project manager in the New Energy Cause Department at the Shanghai International Auto City Group Co. (SIAC). One of the first slides that appeared on the Powerpoint presentation he showed me on his laptop showed that Jiading has the stamp of approval from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Information Industry Technology and the Ministry of Commerce.
Much more than in the U.S., the promotion of an electric vehicle industry in China is a government project. Why are those important? I asked. “It means we have a chance to get part of their budget,” Cao explained. The Ministries contribute 60% toward the budget of certain projects, Cao explained. But Jiading still has to cover the remaining 40%, he added.
Finding the funds shouldn’t be a problem for Jiading. Jiading’s Anting area, where SIAC has its offices, is home to a huge Shanghai Volkswagen plant, an F-1 race track, an automobile museum, and the research and development centers of many multinational suppliers. They were strongly encouraged to open those centers in Jiading, my supplier friends tell me. Jiading is planning a 120,000 square meter R&D port, with many foreign enterprises.
But Jiading really is doing some useful work where EVs are concerned. The EV Zone is dedicated to “seeking the best integration between city, life and new energy vehicles.” One issue it is already facing – one that cities in the U.S. are familiar with – is the best placement for charging stations. Jiading has 800 public charging stations, said Cao. But 40 are in one area, which isn’t working so well. (About a dozen ring the building that houses the SIAC office, which seems a bit self-centered….)
The EV Zone also includes EV car-sharing, an EV rental plan, an EV service center that can import EVs without having to go through cumbersome Customs procedures, and free EV test drives to the public. Each month it holds an event to introduce the public to EVs. To date some 80,000 people have tried out an EV, said Cao.
The EV Zone surveys those who take the test drives about their likes and dislikes regarding the vehicles, and their purchase intents. It also has a fleet of 160 EVs that it collects usage data on. That data, and the user survey results, are shared with the automakers –both foreign and domestic – who are shareholders in Shanghai International Auto City Group Co. Ltd.
Other trials, such as the EV car-sharing, are just getting started. Anting has 3 stations with 20 EVs that can be rented for an hour at a time, said Cao. Cao said that Tongji University was managing the car-sharing program. It paid a fixed price and is now renting them out on an hourly basis, he said. Those EVs collect data that must be reported to the government.
The EV Zone has one battery-swapping station, run by the State Grid, and one gas station that also offers charging, run by Sinopec. It also has one station that supports bi-directional charging, allowing EVs to send energy back to the grid. Domestic automakers Lifan www.lifan.com and Zhongtai www.zotye.com contributed EVs that offer bi-directional charging, said Cao.
Different business models for selling EVs are also studied, and the area has an EV-only dealership, all in the pursuit of finding the best way to have a viable EV market, says Cao. Like the central government, Shanghai International Auto City has discovered that its initial targets for EV usage may have been a bit high. The demo base will have a 10,000 EV capacity by 2015. But it is likely only about 2,000 will actually be on the road then, says Cao. He is sanguine about the possibility of miscalculations, however.
“As a pilot city, it is an experiment,” he says. “We have different ways to get to the target. Even if it is the wrong way, this is good. If we explore some good ideas, we can promote this business model to China and the world!”
Article by Alysha Webb, a freelance automotive journalist and founder of ChinaEV Blog.