Even the Chinese government can’t command progress on electric cars

Who needs a car?
Who needs a car?
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
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Beijing hasn’t given up on the race to dominate electric cars. But scant sales have turned China away from focusing on wheels on the road right now.

About three years ago, the US and China both announced ambitious aims to capture the global electric car market by putting, respectively, 1 million and 500,000 electrified vehicles on their roads by 2015. Today, neither country is on track to reach these numbers—instead, the US has 130,000 electrics and China a paltry 40,000.

But China isn’t giving up.  On Sept. 17, Beijing renewed subsidies for electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. They are substantial—a buyer of an electric car receives a direct payment of $9,800. (The payment is $5,700 for a plug-in hybrid and up to a whopping $81,000 on the purchase of a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.) But analysts doubt the renewed subsidies will finally trigger a buying binge; the cars will still cost more than pure gasoline-fueled vehicles, and will cover less ground and lack the convenience of quick refueling. In short: Despite the new subsidies, China still faces an uphill battle to get motorists to embrace electrics.

China’s difficulties boosting the number of electric cars is surprising. After all, unlike the West, China’s leaders at least purportedly have substantial powers to compel companies to produce certain cars and push people to buy them.

But the strong hand of the government can only go so far. Wu Feng, chief scientist of the Chinese government’s advanced battery program, says that back when the goals were set, Chinese car experts simply did not recognize the scope of the challenge.

Wu told Quartz that he served on the committee of battery experts that helped to recommend the government targets—500,000 electrified vehicles on the road by 2015 and 5 million by 2020. But he said that another panel—the car committee—had unrealistic expectations of how quickly scientists could pack more capacity into batteries and reduce their weight and cost.

“The car committee experts did not appreciate the difficulty of the battery,” Wu said. “They imagined that it is easy. The car companies always focus on gasoline cars.”

For the moment it looks like Chinese officials are trying to establish slightly more realistic goals. Their latest policies cut the high numerical sales goals for electric vehicles, while encouraging car companies to get back to the lab and make their batteries and  hydrogen fuel cells better and cheaper. As motivation, the announced subsidies gradually scale back, a message that ultimately China’s car companies must prove themselves to motorists in China’s version of the marketplace.