It’s 9pm when the first buses start arriving at the Shanghai Bashi Public Transportation depot. In the coming two hours, as they finish service around the city’s Baoshan district, almost 300 drivers will bring their vehicles in to be cleaned, maintained and parked for the night. The queue to enter the security gate grows, but the employee in charge of the petrol pumps has little to do; he battles boredom with his phone while buses pass by. And his future employment prospects look even bleaker. China’s technology hub has an all-electric bus fleet, funded by the state Two-hundred forty of the buses here, at Shanghai Bashi’s second-division depot, are fully electric, and it seems likely that, next year, no combustion engine will enter the premises at all. In an effort to curb pollution and noise, China’s most populous city expects the substitution of all traditional vehicles in its public transport system to be completed two years ahead of schedule. That helps explain why the queue of buses has moved on so swiftly to the washing tunnel. “EV [electric vehicle] buses use a high voltage system that generates a lot of static electricity and, therefore, catches a lot of dust,” says depot manager Li Hong. “We can’t use water to clean the engine, so we have installed a high-pressure, dry-ice cleaning machine. It’s more expensive than conventional cleaning because the tunnel requires a powerful vacuum system to catch all the dust [which is stored in drawers inside the wall], but we save water and reduce the amount of particles in the air even further.” Nicknamed Black King Kongs, Yutong buses are the latest addition to Shanghai’s municipal fleet. Although they don’t make much noise – “Around 50 decibels, half of what a combustion engine can create,” Li says – and so tend to catch jaywalkers by surprise, they are safer in other ways. Zhang Hui, a Shanghai Bashi driver on Route 189, points to a black box on the dashboard of his Yutong. “This has a camera and the system can tell if I’m tired or distracted and sound an alarm,” says Zhang. Li dismisses widespread concerns about exploding batteries: “They’ve proven to be completely reliable and safe.” Each year, we purchase buses with a longer range and higher specifications for less money. EV technology advances fast and maintenance is easier than with combustion engines Li Hong, electric bus depot manager One of four electric models acquired by Shanghai since 2016, the Black King Kong is also comfortable. Zhang is especially happy with his seat, which heats in winter and cools in summer. Passengers do not benefit from that particular luxury but seem to approve of the spacious, silent interior and the new ticket machines, which accept transportation cards, QR codes generated by phones, the near field communication (NFC) chips of smartphones, even good old-fashioned cash. “But the most important thing is the range of the vehicle, because it can run up to 220km even with the heating on,” says Zhang, pointing at a display that reveals he’s travelled 136km (84.5 miles) today, and the battery retains 46 per cent of its capacity. “Each year, we purchase buses with a longer range and higher specifications for less money,” says Li. “EV technology advances fast and maintenance is easier than with combustion engines because these vehicles have fewer moving parts.” The stones in the road for China’s 2025 plan on electric vehicles A cleaner wearing a protective mask has finished with his vehicle, so Zhang drives his bus over to one of the depot’s 102 charging poles. Another employee plugs the Black King Kong in. If the battery had been completely discharged, it would have taken four hours to reach 100 per cent, or half that time if the pole were set to fast charging, in which case just one vehicle can be hooked up at a time, instead of four. “The only thing I care about is having the bus fully charged by 4am, when my colleagues set out for work,” laughs Zhang. He doesn’t know it, but Zhang’s bus saves the city’s 24 million inhabitants 356 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 28kg of nitrogen oxide and 26kg of particulate matter every year, according to the Shanghai Municipal Transportation Commission. And that calculation takes into account the pollution produced by generating the electricity needed to power each vehicle – about 300 kilowatt-hours for a full charge – based on the current energy production mix of the city. “Whenever possible we charge the buses at night, when electricity is cheaper [0.3 yuan per kWh], and all operations are remotely supervised from our control room,” says Li. Here, wall screens show the real-time charging status of each pole and employees can act swiftly if an error is detected – batteries can be damaged if they are overcharged, for instance. The 240 electric buses at the Baoshan depot are just a fraction of the 9,368 owned by Shanghai operators, 55 per cent of the entire city fleet. Also plying the streets of Shanghai are 7,300 EVs of other descriptions – including mail delivery vans and cleaning trucks, as well as 8,000 rental cars, distributed across 3,600 pickup points; 1.2 million users make 50,000 daily trips in these cars. Additionally, Shanghai introduced its first batch of electric taxis in November. These numbers, achieved so early in the EV era, would make any megacity in the world proud. New York, by comparison, expects to completely electrify its bus fleet only by 2040. Nevertheless, if it wishes to catch the city leading the charge in China, Shanghai will have to stomp down on the accelerator. Shenzhen retired its last combustion-engine taxis at the end of December, authorities claim, and has entered 2019 as the world’s first city with an all-electric public transport network. According to data offered by the Shenzhen transportation authorities to Post Magazine, China’s Silicon Valley now operates 16,259 electric buses – triple the number in New York – made by four domestic brands, and 19,000 EV taxis: all BYD e6 vehicles. They are recharged at 5,100 public poles at 270 stations across Shenzhen. The charging infrastructure adjacent to Futian Bus Station is operated by state-owned Potevio, and the frenzy here never abates. “There is space to charge 20 buses at any given time, but we run around the clock,” says manager Li Shurong. “Operators prefer to charge at night and save some money, but there are not yet enough charging stations for such a large fleet.” Shenzhen’s achievement is the culmination of a process that began ahead of the 2011 Universiade – the sporting event for university athletes was chosen as a trial for electric buses – and an example for the rest of the world from the most polluting country on Earth. The city had, in 2009, been named among the 13 in which electric public transport projects would be piloted, and Zheng Jingyu, who oversees the bus fleets for Shenzhen’s transportation commission, said ambitions soared after Xi Jinping took charge of the country in 2013. Countrywide policy had been set at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, in 2012, during which green development was made a priority and the building of an ecological society a long-term goal. “Green mountains and clear water are equal to mountains of gold and silver,” Xi reminded his countrymen a year later. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance study published last year, China introduces 9,500 new electric buses – equivalent to London’s entire fleet – every five weeks. The study also estimates that of the 385,000 electric buses in operation worldwide, 99 per cent run in China. In contrast, only 1.6 per cent of vehicles in Europe are electric and the percentage drops to a marginal 0.5 per cent in the United States. “There are several reasons behind Shenzhen’s success,” says Zheng. “First and foremost is the sound economic environment. This makes the huge investment needed to substitute so many buses possible. Then comes the open and innovative character of the city; both its citizens and its government are keen to try new things. It was the first place where China experimented with opening up reforms and now it pays more attention to environmental protection. “Finally, the fact that many automakers produce in the vicinity is also very relevant.” China is developing a new kind of compact, high-density city where, in the future, private cars will have no place Vicente Guallart, architect BYD, an acronym for Build Your Dreams, manufactures most of Shenzhen’s buses and all of its taxis. Last year, the company broke sales records for five months straight and became the second largest manufacturer, behind BJEV, of EVs in China, with close to 30,000 units sold in December. The avenue leading to the company’s headquarters, in Shenzhen’s Pingshan district, bears the company’s name and is lined with solar-powered street lamps, also manufactured by BYD. “The sun gives humanity a second chance,” claim the subtitles in a promotional video played to all visiting media that portrays the company as “an example of sustainability”. BYD says it believes the future lies in the combination of renewable energies, energy storage technology (i.e. batteries) and electric vehicles. And its idea of urban mobility is three-tiered: an underground rail system, electric surface transportation and elevated monorail networks, for which it has developed SkyRail, a medium-density, fully integrated, driverless, straddle-type system. “China is developing a new kind of compact, high-density city where, in the future, private cars will have no place,” says Vicente Guallart, the Spanish architect awarded the first prize in the bid to develop Shenzhen’s Xiangmihu district. “We believe metro systems and surface automated electric buses, along with driverless sharing vehicles, will be the choice of transport.” Guallart’s project includes a “green corridor” that links sea and mountain and leaves a lot of space for pedestrians and bicycles. “We can’t learn much from China’s urban planning in the last 20 years, but the ambition to undo past mistakes is laudable and it may become a trendsetter in the future,” says Guallart. At BYD’s main manufacturing plant, an electric car is assembled every 90 seconds. The majority of the work is done by robots, so the humans manning most production lines just supervise the machines as they go about their labour. Among the EVs produced in Pingshan is the e6, “the world’s most widely used pure electric taxi”, according to Isbrand Ho, managing director, BYD Europe. He is keen to point out that the model was chosen by Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, for its all-electric taxi fleet, the world’s first, a feat achieved in 2016. “The core elements of EVs are the engine and the battery,” explains Richard Li, a PR manager accompanying Post Magazine during a visit to the Shenzhen plant in which BYD produces batteries. Located in the Kengzi district, it is a fortress; photography is strictly forbidden and visitors must put tape over the camera lenses of their phones before being allowed to enter the premises. The plant would be ideal as the setting for an apocalyptic Blade Runner-esque sci-fi film. In huge cold-lit rooms criss-crossed by thick silver tubes, where people seldom venture, anodes and cathodes are produced. Conveyor belts and robots are strictly monitored because, with 14 gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity in play, safety is the top priority. Local authorities no longer required to work on ‘Made in China 2025’ “We work at full capacity and we must expand to meet the huge demand,” says Li. “Last June, we built an even bigger, 24 GWh, factory in Qinghai province [which is rich in lithium] and the plan is to increase production there to 60 GWh in 2019.” That would make it the world’s biggest battery factory. BYD buses are assembled in Shanwei, a coastal Guangdong city about 100km to the northeast of Hong Kong. Industry 4.0 hasn’t yet reached here; the hiss of robots having yet to replace the clanking of hammers. It takes 18 days to build a bus, and the factory can deliver a maximum of 36 a day. “We will also spend three days designing each bus to match a client’s requirements,” says Li. The final assembly line is a riot of colour, the logos of many cities adorning the gleaming bodywork, although the red and blue livery of Guangzhou is most prominent on our visit. “Everybody wants to excel in clean energy transportation to meet national targets ahead of schedule,” says the PR manager. Forward thinking Shenzhen may be, but it has not ironed out all of the wrinkles yet. Charging piles require space and must be well-spaced, which has resulted in almost 80 per cent of those in Shenzhen having been sited on land leased from private companies, which makes operations more expensive and less predictable. With short-term contracts there comes the risk that the facilities will have to be relocated regularly. There is also an urgent need to train staff to maintain the vehicles. Cities that wish to follow Shenzhen’s example also “have to have financial muscle, to invest the huge amounts of money required to buy the vehicles”, says Zheng. An average electric bus costs about 2 million yuan (US$297,000), four times the price of a diesel bus, the two-ton battery accounting for roughly half of the total. Even with generous local and national subsidies – which are expected to drop by 20 per cent next year – not every city can afford a fleet of EVs. “We haven’t yet calculated the cost of operating electric buses throughout their life cycle, but we believe they’re more expensive than conventional ones,” says Zheng. Shanghai authorities, however, have done the maths. “For each 50,000km [close to a year’s mileage], our diesel buses require an average of 20,000 litres of fuel. That means they cost 130,000 yuan to operate at current diesel prices. An electric bus, however, costs only 35,000 yuan for electricity per year,” says Li Hong, at the Bashi depot. “Each charging pole costs 100,000 yuan and electric buses will run for eight years [four years less than conventional vehicles, due to the degeneration of batteries] before being decommissioned. So, in all, they are still a bit more expensive for the city. “But these calculations don’t take into account the benefits for health and the environment.” Buses follow set routes and it’s easy enough to park them beside charging poles at night, while they are out of service. Taxis are a different story. “Although drivers’ income has increased with the adoption of electric cars, because fuel is more expensive, it’s harder for them to charge the vehicles,” says Liu Pengnan, the Shenzhen government official in charge of taxis (his preferred job title). “Charging stations are not yet evenly distributed throughout the city and sometimes drivers have to go far and wait long to get serviced.” Chen Fuming makes his living by driving a BYD e6 taxi through the streets of Shenzhen. “The car is more comfortable than the Volkswagen we used to drive, and clients are happy. But I’m always worried when the battery goes down to 30 per cent or less, because I may have to refuse a customer who is in for a long ride,” says the middle-aged driver. “With a conventional car I would never have this problem, because refuelling takes just a few minutes.” Made in China 2025? Not unless Beijing starts spending more money Hong Kong chose the BYD e6 for a trial run in 2017, but was unimpressed: “High production cost, limited service life, long charging time and low energy density of e-vehicle batteries are the key constraints for electric vehicles to take up commercial transportation duties,” claimed the Environment Bureau in a paper submitted in May that year to the Legislative Council’s environmental affairs panel. Chinese people are not so sensitive to the environmental benefits, so price is key for success Liu Jing, professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business Similar concerns are hampering the switch to electric taxis in Shanghai. “[Taxis] run an average of 350km per day [double the distance of buses], so we need a car with at least 450km range,” says Wang Dajun, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Transportation Commission. “Some companies have tried the BYD e6, but they don’t seem convinced yet. They worry about the vehicles’ maintenance because the headquarters is far from the city.” Shanghai has instead chosen to trial another locally developed vehicle, the Roewe Ei5, and the manufacturer has established a team to monitor the cars’ performance and make necessary adjustments. “We will wait to gather enough data before we make a decision on which model to choose,” says Wang. The one thing all those interviewed for this story agree on is that EV technology improves quickly and prices fall fast. “It’s just a matter of time before they match and even surpass the capabilities of combustion vehicles,” predicts Wang. BYD believes China’s push for electrification will eventually benefit the whole world because the company considers public transport the first of three steps towards the electrification of all ground transport. “Then we have logistic vehicles and, finally, private cars,” says Richard Li. Public investment brings the economies of scale this technology requires to mature and be cost-competitive. “Chinese people are not so sensitive to the environmental benefits, so price is key for success,” says Liu Jing, finance professor at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, in Beijing. “China’s centralised model allows the government to direct state-owned enterprises on what to do and force them to build the required charging infrastructure, even if it’s not yet economically viable, and to buy electric vehicles. Eventually, this first step will make the use of private EVs practical and competitive. Plus, because electric bikes are already widely used, the Chinese are acquainted with the technology and its peculiarities.” With the aim of making EVs attractive to private drivers, the Shanghai government has teamed up with the Lian Lian app to list all charging stations in the city and direct drivers to the nearest. “There are already 200,000 charging poles installed in Shanghai: 36,000 are public, 32,000 belong to the bus companies, and the other 132,000 are private. Owners of the latter [individuals who have invested in a private pole to charge their own EV] can choose to list theirs and charge for their use when they’re available,” says Wang. “This not only makes it easier to own an electric car but also boosts the sharing economy.” China is setting an example for the rest of the world and can be a good influence for developing countrie. Its size has already managed to make solar energy affordable, and I believe the same will be true for electric vehicles Liu Jing Private owners also benefit from free licence plates [which are green as opposed to the conventional blue], whereas the owners of new petrol-driven cars have to pay up to 90,000 yuan for one and wait to be lucky in a draw, which EV owners are exempted from, too. Most mainland cities are introducing similar measures, with comparable results. In Beijing, 400,000 people are on the waiting list for one of the 54,000 plates the city has allocated for zero-emission cars. In all, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, 1.26 million new energy vehicles (NEVs) – which also include hybrids and the rare hydrogen-fuel-cell cars – were sold last year, up 62 per cent from 2017. China clearly leads the world in EV take-up, and delegations from all corners flock to Shenzhen to learn from its experience. One small corner of the country is failing to keep up, though; both the taxi and bus pilot programmes in Hong Kong have failed miserably. Why? Has Hong Kong pulled the plug on electric cars? “Each city has its own peculiarities,” says Zheng, the Shenzhen official clearly uncomfortable with the question. “It’s not possible to copy and implement someone else’s model. Hong Kong is trying different things and needs to study all possibilities.” Despite the robust growth in their number, NEVs make up only 0.6 per cent of vehicles on China’s roads. But Beijing’s ambitions know no bounds; authorities have set a goal to increase the output of NEVs to 2 million by 2020, and expect 25 per cent of all vehicles sold in 2025 to be green. “China is setting an example for the rest of the world and can be a good influence for developing countries,” says Liu. “Its size has already managed to make solar energy affordable, and I believe the same will be true for electric vehicles.” When it has achieved that, China will have another problem to contend with: the mass recycling of spent batteries.