Don't give up on green vehicles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


If any place seemed like a market for the development of electric cars, it had to be China. It has the biggest population, the fastest-growing car market and horrendous air pollution - attributed partly to petrol engines. As well, American billionaire investment guru Waren Buffett has bought a big stake in BYD, the mainland's biggest electric-car maker; BMW has tested an electric version of the Rolls-Royce on Rolls owners, industry specialists and the media in China; and the government has set up a 100 billion yuan (HK$122.6 billion) fund to develop green vehicles.

Alas, the mainland public remains unconvinced about electric cars. Customers have shown no willingness to buy them, even with a 120,000-yuan subsidy under an experimental scheme introduced two years ago in 13 cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. And according to the vice-chairman of the National Energy Advisory Committee, Professor Zhou Dadi , those who bought one have complained of inconvenience caused by short battery life and many unsolved technological problems. This mirrors the American sales experience, with electric and hybrid cars expected to account for just 0.1 per cent of light vehicle sales this year.

Despite the government's commitment, Premier Wen Jiabao flagged a change of strategy two months ago when he said it remained unclear whether green cars would be the winners in the end in the drive to save energy and curb pollution, and warned against committing resources to premature technologies.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Beijing has assembled the top experts and policymakers on electric and hybrid cars to discuss cost-effectiveness and technological problems that cast doubt on the environmental benefits. Industry observers say this could result in a shift of resources to development of the next generation of hybrid cars, which have gained greater acceptance worldwide.

This may disappoint environmentalists. But it makes sense for the mainland not to waste money earmarked for an environmental dividend on troublesome technology that is fuelled by polluting, coal-burning power stations. That said, it is to be hoped that governments do not give up on further development of electric cars because of customer resistance. Hong Kong, for example, as a more mature market with shorter driving distances, should continue expanding a recharging network for them, promote the incentives for buying them and consider subsidising electric taxis.

Until a battery is developed that is lighter, more powerful and longer-lasting, hybrid cars may offer a clearer path to a greener transport future. Meanwhile carmakers should redouble efforts to improve the fuel efficiency of existing models and governments should consider incentives for customers to buy them.