Electric cars fail to make buzz in Beijing despite subsidies, hassle-free licence plates

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 2:07pm

Fewer than one out of a thousand prospective owners in Beijing is opting for an electric car, figures show, as the Chinese capital struggles to make its fleet of more than five million vehicles less polluting.

Only 1,701 would-be buyers of electric cars have filed applications for a new vehicle licence as of Saturday, according to the municipal government. These represent less than 0.1 per cent of the 1,841,213 applications for new Beijing licence plates, with the rest coming from conventional petrol- or diesel-powered cars.

The lack of interest in electric cars flies in the face of a series of measures by the municipal government incentivising the move away from traditional polluters in the congested city, making new registrations of traditional vehicles nearly impossible.

New applicants for conventional cars have a 0.8 per cent chance of getting a plate, an unnamed traffic management official told the Beijing News. For applicants with electric cars, however, the lottery is a mere formality. The 20,000 new licence plates due to be issued for electric cars this year would allow – if the trend continues – every single applicant to get a licence plate.

The big fear is to get stuck in Beijing traffic and not have enough charge
Janet Lewis

Yet electric cars have long suffered from a reputation of unreliability and poor performance in the city where electric motorbikes have long replaced fossil fuel-powered ones. Drivers of the city’s more than 1,000 electric taxis have complained about the limited distance the cars can travel, and the long waiting lines and charging times at the city’s 500 charging stations.

The key problem for electric vehicles in China is the lack of supporting infrastructure such as charging stations, said Janet Lewis, a Hong Kong-based industry analyst with Macquarie Capital Securities. "The big fear is to get stuck in Beijing traffic and not have enough charge," she said. 

The city plans to set up 1,000 charging stations by the end of this year and cover the entire city including suburbs by 2017. By then, it hopes to increase the number of electric cars on the cities to 1.7 million, or slightly more than a quarter of all vehicles.

Beijing has granted subsidies of up to 108,000 yuan (HK$137,000) to residents buying electric cars, with the central government chipping in half. In a notice on Saturday, the ministry of finance said it would extend the subsidy programme beyond next year, when it was set to expire.

But demand for traditional cars remains overwhelming. The municipal government tweaked the lottery system in January for the 640,000 applicants who have applied more than 25 times for a license. Now, those who have applied more than 37 times stand a 2.4 per cent chance of getting one.