China goes big in green car race

Scott Tong Sep 1, 2009
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China goes big in green car race

Scott Tong Sep 1, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: Despite its lackluster August sales report that came out this morning, General Motors has at least one thing going for it: name recognition. It’s one of a handful of carmakers that are recognizable just by its initials — GM. VW is another one. What about BYD? Not ringing any bells for you?

It’s a Chinese company. One that’s already got an electric hybrid on the market there. And BYD has plans to have its cars on American roads next year. Just one more sign that China is very serious about green technology. Our China correspondent Scott Tong has the story from the southern city of Shenzhen.


SCOTT TONG: The Shenzhen-based company BYD makes what it calls the first-ever plug-in hybrid for the masses. It runs mainly on electricity, as opposed to, say, the Toyota Prius hybrid, which goes mostly on gas.

That makes the BYD really quiet. It doesn’t emit many radio-friendly sounds. Here’s the ignition. And here’s the acceleration.

BYD founder Wang Chuanfu claims this car charges up faster than any other competitor.

Wang CHUANFU: BYD’s F3 dual mode makes China a world leader for the first time.

A bold claim. Though it’s hard to know if it’s true since much of this research happens in secret.

There’s a lot at stake, says Michael Laske, president of AVL China in Beijing. It makes equipment to test this next-generation technology.

MICHAEL Laske: Whoever can somehow create a lower cost battery that takes up less space in the vehicle is going to be the equivalent of the next Microsoft.

China is proud that it’s in the vanguard of electric battery technology. Last year, Warren Buffett put more than $200 million into BYD. So far, his investment has made $1 billion on paper.

Here’s independent auto analyst Zhang Zhiyong.

Zhang ZHIYONG: China’s car industry traditionally lagged behind Europe, America, and Japan. So how can China catch up to the West, even surpass it? The opportunity is electric and new energy cars.

And the Chinese government knows this. It just told the country’s 10 top domestic carmakers to join forces in developing clean cars. And it’s giving up to $9000 thousand in subsidies per car for local governments and taxi fleets to buy them.

AVL’s Michael Laske says the Chinese government will play another big role — building the infrastructure, say charging stations. And China knows infrastructure, whether it’s bridges or cellphone towers or airports.

MICHAEL Laske: When you travel around China every little city has these beautiful new modern airports. I feel a little embarrassed going back to the United States now. Even when I go to Chicago or New York, the airports seem so old and antiquated.

Another plus for China is lots of people already use electric-power to get around.

About 100 million Chinese commuters ride electric bikes and mopeds. Every night, they pull the electric batteries from their two-wheelers and recharge them.

When this 100 million people go from two wheels to four wheels, the efficiency of the vehicles they drive will have major implications for the planet. Environmental lawyer Charlie McElwee is with the firm Squire Sanders in Shanghai.

He says on a per-person basis, the Chinese are still pretty energy efficient.

CHARLIE McElwee: Currently, the Chinese use about 25 percent of the carbon that Americans use. So if suddenly the Chinese population live like Americans, then you’ve got 4 to 5 times the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere than you have now.

One reason China matters so much environmentally is it has so many people. That’s why its total carbon emissions now exceed those of the United States. China’s trying to address the issue on several fronts.

McElwee: It has very aggressive energy efficiency goals. It has very aggressive renewable energy portfolio requirements. I mean these are world beating standards.

Beijing calls this as a green revolution, though climate change negotiators insist China can commit to more steps. Chinese carmaker BYD takes its next step with the introduction of a 100 percent all-electric vehicle.

In Shenzhen, southern China, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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