China Moves To Increase Number Of Electric Vehicles On Its Roads

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 25, 2017 4:10 pm

President Trump may not talk much about electric vehicles, but there's another American — with better name recognition in China — who does.

The voice of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, popular in China for his role in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, graces the showroom of Auto Shanghai, the city's biennial automotive expo, accompanied by images beamed on a circular wall showing Beijing covered in smog and children wearing pollution masks.

"Let us reconnect with nature, fill our lungs with clean air instead of pollution, let us see beauty more clearly," says DiCaprio in a commercial that's part of a display for an electric vehicle made by Chinese automaker BYD. "With new energy, we can see this future. Now let's make it ours."

The message is repeated by automakers throughout the showroom at this year's exhibition.

"China's been pushing very aggressively to move to a greater mix of electrified vehicles," says Trevor Worthington, vice president of product development at Ford Motor Co. in Shanghai.

The U.S. automaker, which sold 1.3 million cars in China last year, has announced it will electrify 70 percent of its vehicles in China by 2025. This comes as Beijing is calling on auto manufacturers to sell more electric vehicles to reduce vehicle emissions, as well as China's dependence on foreign oil.

By early next year, Beijing will require automakers in China to ensure that at least 8 percent of all vehicles they manufacture are electric. The country had more than 1 million electric vehicles in 2016 — an 87 percent increase over the previous year. Vehicles range in price from $6,000 to $200,000 (for the most expensive Tesla model).

"It's the largest automotive market in the world and will continue to be in the foreseeable future," says Worthington. "And you look at the number of mega-cities that there are in China, the density of their populations, so finding alternative solutions is not an unreasonable thing to expect the Chinese government to be doing."

The government has subsidized charging stations for electric vehicles — China had 300,000 stations as of December 2016 — and it has also paid people who purchase electric and plug-in hybrids thousands of dollars' worth of subsidies. But according to Tong Xiuying of Chinese automaker Chang'an, consumer demand is high regardless of incentives.

"In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, traffic is very heavy and gas prices are high, so people prefer driving electric cars," she says. "But it certainly helps that these cities are offering big incentives if you purchase these vehicles."

Shanghai offers the biggest incentive, says auto show attendee Lu Chengzhong.

"In Shanghai, you normally have to pay around 15,000 U.S. dollars for a license plate, and that's after you win one in a lottery!" says Lu, laughing. "If you buy a plug-in hybrid, the city will give you a free license plate, just like that. That makes it pretty alluring."

But more alluring still is the big American truck. Lu and his friend join others posing for selfies in front of a Chevy Silverado, a full-sized pick-up that's bigger than anything they've seen before on China's roads — and not a vehicle you can plug in. The two joke that they could fit a machine gun on the back of it.

"I'm not sure China's ready for this," says Lu. "But Chinese cities are expanding, and people are starting to move to quieter suburbs to live. One day when richer people move to the countryside, I guess they'll buy trucks like this. It's a matter of time."

And when that day comes, says Lu, maybe big trucks like these will all be electric, too.

Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The Trump administration wants to dismantle Obama-era emission standards on vehicles, so some are looking to China for the future of electric cars where the government has strict regulations to promote sales of electric vehicles. For proof, look no further than this week's Shanghai Auto Show where the world's largest automakers are showing off their latest electric models. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: President Trump may not talk much about electric vehicles, but there's another American with better name recognition in China who does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: New energy can give us a new future.

SCHMITZ: The voice of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, popular in China for his role in the '90s film "Titanic," graces the showroom of the Shanghai Auto Show alongside images of Beijing smog and children wearing pollution masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICAPRIO: Let us reconnect with nature, fill our lungs with clean air instead of pollution. Let us see beauty more clearly.

SCHMITZ: The commercial is part of the display for an electric vehicle made by Chinese automaker BYD, and its message is repeated by automakers throughout this year's showroom.

TREVOR WORTHINGTON: China's been pushing very aggressively to move to a greater mix of electrified vehicles.

SCHMITZ: Trevor Worthington is vice president of product development at Ford in Shanghai. The U.S. automaker has announced it will electrify 70 percent of its vehicles in China by 2025. This comes as Beijing is calling on automakers to sell more electric vehicles.

WORTHINGTON: It's the largest automotive market in the world and will continue for the foreseeable future to be. You look at the number of kind of megacities that there are in China - so the density of populations. And to some extent, finding alternative solutions is actually not an unreasonable thing to expect the Chinese government to be doing.

SCHMITZ: By early next year, Beijing will require automakers in China to ensure that at least 8 percent of all their vehicles are electric. The government has subsidized charging stations for electric vehicles, and it's also paid people who purchase electric and plug-in hybrids thousands of dollars' worth of subsidies. But according to Tong Xiuying of Chinese automaker Changan, much of the demand comes from Chinese consumers themselves.

TONG XIUYING: (Through interpreter) In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, traffic is very heavy, and gas prices are high. So people prefer driving electric cars. But it certainly helps that these cities are offering big incentives if you purchase these vehicles.

SCHMITZ: Shanghai offers the biggest incentive, says auto show attendee Lu Chengzhong.

LU CHENGZHONG: (Through interpreter) In Shanghai, you normally have to pay around 15,000 U.S. dollars for a license plate, and that's after you win one in a lottery. If you buy a plug-in hybrid, the city will give you a free license plate just like that. That makes it pretty alluring.

SCHMITZ: But more alluring still is the big American truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LU: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Lu and his friend join others posing for selfies in front of a Chevy Silverado, a full-sized pickup that's bigger than anything they've seen before on China's roads, not a vehicle you can plug in. The two of them joke they could fit a machine gun on the back of it.

LU: (Through interpreter) I'm not sure China is ready for this, but Chinese cities are expanding, and people are starting to move to quieter suburbs to live. One day when richer people move to the countryside, I guess they'll buy trucks like this. It's a matter of time.

SCHMITZ: And when that day comes, says Lu, maybe big trucks like these will all be electric, too. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK IKUMI SONG, "HEIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.