Impatient Beijing subway commuters get the better of German fare machines

Superior foreign technology often fails when put to the test in China's different market conditions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 4:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 12:41pm

European-made equipment which collects fares on the Beijing subway may be advanced, but is proving seemingly incapable of coping with Chinese passengers in a hurry.

Several times a year, engineers have had to fly in from Germany to deal with various operational glitches, in particular the jamming up of the system, according to a manager with the company.

"Our technical experts were puzzled why the machines, which have worked perfectly in Europe for years, failed in China all the time," he said, declining to be named due to business sensitivities. "They were shocked by what they found."

In Europe, passengers keep a certain distance from each other and feed their tickets into the machine only after the person in front has passed through.

But in China, impatient passengers follow closely behind each other and often insert their ticket before the gate opens for the person in front.

"Our German engineers assumed there would be two to three seconds between two tickets, but in China even half a second seems too long," he said.

The problem has proved tough to fix. Engineers not only needed to rewrite software code, but also redesign parts. So far the foreign technicians have not come up with an effective solution to counter the impatience of mainland passengers.

As a result, in Beijing and many other Chinese cities, fare-collection equipment is often manned by subway employees who constantly remind passengers to back off or, when the machines fail, collect fares by hand.

Public transport is one of the many sectors in China where foreign technology has stumbled. At the same time, pressure on multinationals competing in China has increased as local companies have sensed an opportunity to find products with a better fit for the local market.

Zhang Yi, general sales manager with the Cheng Li Special Automobile Company, one of the largest Chinese producers of city maintenance vehicles, said that until recently mainland officials preferred buying overseas technology and brands.

"Foreign companies have been making these vehicles for decades. There is no denying that their technology is more advanced in some areas," Zhang said. "And some officials felt that a fancy-looking street sweeper from a developed country would improve the city's image."

But in the past five or six years, most Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, have given up on foreign maintenance equipment.

"Chinese streets are often littered with garbage that is much greater in size and quantity than in Europe or America," Zhang said. "This significantly shortens the lifespan of foreign sweepers, that is if they don't choke to death right away."

Domestically produced machines may not have fancy technology or sleek looks "but they get the job done", he added.

Another disadvantage of foreign products is price. Domestic vehicles often come at half or one-third of the cost of overseas competitors, and local replacement parts are cheaper and more readily available.

"We have invested tens of millions of yuan a year on research and development to provide a speedy response to the requirements of customers. I don't think foreign companies can outdo us on this."

Zhang said his company's vehicles had not only won battles in the domestic market, but were exported in rising numbers to Africa, Russia and Southeast Asia.

"We are still kept out of Europe and America because our pollutant emissions exceed their environmental standards," he said.

"But the problem can be solved. We will eventually enter these markets with our well-tested technology and down-to-earth prices."

Professor Wang Xifu, director of the System Engineering and Control Research Institute at Beijing Jiaotong University's School of Traffic and Transportation, said China had relied on foreign technology and equipment for two decades since the 1980s for the sake of rapid economic development.

"Back then, our priority was speed and we wanted to buy anything that could be used immediately," he said. "Our interest has gradually moved on to quality and the various issues of foreign technology have been exposed."

Wang said 10 years ago China's research effort was still small, but now there were many researchers in almost every important field working to come up with technology that was globally competitive.

"To overseas companies this is bad news," Wang said.

Many foreign technologies did not work in China, due to a variety of reasons.

Pig waste fermentation technology widely used in Europe and Japan did not work because Chinese pigs were fed so many antibiotics that their waste killed helpful bacteria, according to a report last year by the Guangdong agricultural authorities.

German carmaker Volkswagen reportedly discontinued the use of a particular gearbox because Chinese traffic jams caused it to have frequent system failures.

Waste-processing plants built with technology from developed countries were frequently overwhelmed by the huge amount of pollutants in Chinese rivers and urban drainage systems, according to mainland media reports.

But Professor Cao Qixin, a robotics expert at Shanghai Jiaotong University, said China still relied on overseas technology in sensitive areas such as space projects.

"Our researchers can come up with good ideas and superb designs, but turning them into products is another story," he said.