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China’s green dream machine

BYD Auto, a hybrid carmaker with big ambitions, leads the global eco-race with the first plug-in petrol-electric hybrid vehicle. But can the Chinese company keep accelerating? Helena Iveson reports.

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China’s horrific air pollution is hardly a state secret, causing about 656,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organisation. But what is more of a surprise is the arrival of a new, local car manufacturer with breathtaking ambitions, supported by a government seeking to become a world leader when it comes to green technology.

BYD Auto – short for Build Your Dreams – was only founded in 2003, yet it has pulled off a global coup by mass-­producing the world’s first plug-in petrol-­electric hybrid, the nifty-looking BYD F3DM. Under the bonnet, the car is more of a purely electric vehicle than any similar hybrids on the road today, and it has made its debut at least a year ahead of similar models from the United States and Japan.

The car, which does not need a specialised electric charging station and can be powered up by using a normal household supply, is now on sale in China, where it costs just under 150,000 yuan (US$22,000), a similar price to a mid-range petrol-powered sedan and a bit more than half the 250,000 yuan it costs to buy a Toyota Prius. BYD has come from nowhere to sell 24,107 vehicles in January 2009 alone, an increase of nearly 80% from the previous year, and aims to sell 400,000 models in China this year.

BYD aims to tap into the world’s fastest-growing auto market as China’s emerging middle class – now estimated to number between 100 million and 150 million people – swap their bicycles for four wheels. While the economic crisis has sent vehicle sales tumbling around the world, Beijing alone is still adding more than 1,500 new cars to its gridlock every day. “The use of alternative types of cars could really make a contribution to the reduction of pollution in large Chinese cities,” says Karl-Thomas Neumann, chairman of the car-parts manufacturer Continental.

A survey by Continental shows that Chinese consumers are much more interested in hybrids than their European counterparts, with 53.7% of those surveyed happy to buy a hybrid and 73.4% who would consider an electric car – decidedly more green than the United Kingdom’s respective 30.2% and 37.1%. Chinese drivers are more open to hybrids because “more than 90% drive in urban centres and travel less than 60 miles [about 100 kilometres] a day”, says Paul Lin, BYD Auto’s marketing manager. Hybrids come into their own in cities because of their limited range and top speeds. In queues, the car’s electric engine shuts down before restarting when the car moves again.

While the auto company is a newcomer, its parent company, BYD – which itself has only been around since 1995 – is the world’s biggest supplier of rechargeable batteries, giving them a huge jump-start when it comes to the production of hybrid and electric cars. And the company has audacious ambitions – it aims to be China’s number-one car company by 2015, and world number one in 2025. BYD vehicles will be launched in Europe – provisionally Denmark, because of its friendly tax policies towards green technology – in 2011.

“We respect our competitors abroad,” says Lin, “but we are aiming to show that we can not only compete on the world stage, but dominate.”

Environmentalists and Chinese commuters frustrated at the rising price of fuel aren’t the only ones hoping that the car is successful. The American investment guru Warren Buffet has bought a 10% stake in the company for US$232 million.

In China, electricity is cheap, though this is produced by burning coal. The company decided to avoid building expensive charging stations. “Most Chinese live in apartments and don’t have their own garages, so instead, drivers unplug the battery and charge it in their homes overnight,” says Lin. The car has a range of 62 miles on a fully charged battery, and once the battery runs out, the car switches into hybrid mode. Lin says the batteries will not degrade until they have been fully charged 2,000 times, which should take seven years, and even then, the battery’s capacity only drops to 80%.

Of course, one company alone won’t change China’s dirty habits, let alone those of the world, says Bradley Berman, editor of Hybridcars.com. “BYD deserves credit for producing plug-in hybrids. But to make a real dent in auto pollution, these plug-in cars will need to scale up to hundreds of thousands per year. So, it’s not who’s first with the first models. Environmental and economic success will come with high-volume production sustained over many years,” he says.

An analyst with IHS Global Insight, Duan Chengwu, says China’s advances in green technology have come about because of backing from its most dominant power source – its communist government. “The government firmly supports these companies producing hybrids and electric cars,” says Duan. Measures to stimulate the ailing car industry include the halving of sales tax on certain cars, subsidies for owners of high-emission vehicles who exchange them for more fuel-efficient vehicles and a 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) fund to promote new technology. Thirteen cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, offer subsidies to hybrid buyers.

While combating pollution problems is one incentive, the Chinese government has another reason to push green technology: pride. “The government wants to leapfrog western countries and become a global leader in the field,” Duan says. “The country is years behind its competitors in the auto industry as a whole, but when it comes to green technology, everyone is starting from scratch. In this scenario, China has a great opportunity.”

Four wheels good

The most famous hybrid car of choice is still the Toyota Prius, the first mass-produced model. The car is essentially petrol-fuelled but has an electric engine that propels the car at low speeds and assists the main engine when accelerating. First launched in Japan in 1997 before going worldwide in 2001, more than one million Prius hybrids have been sold. There will be a plug-in version of the Prius for fleet customers by the end of the year, and the company also recently announced it will produce a commuter battery-electric vehicle by 2012.

General Motors won’t be joining the electric-car fray until 2011, when it says it will launch the Chevy Volt in the United States. The car will have a lithium-ion battery with a petrol-powered engine that drives a generator to provide electricity when driven beyond its 40-mile (65-kilometre) battery range. The Volt is expected to cost around US$40,000.

In the United Kingdom, the independent car company Lightning wins the award for the most stylish option – its swish-looking fully electric Lightning model looks like something an eco-friendly James Bond would drive, and should be available from late 2010. The catch? An estimated asking price of nearly US$170,000.


www.guardian.co.uk

Copyright  Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Homepage photo from BYD

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Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环保汽车!

汽车再环保能有多环保,汽车再环保能有骑自行车环保,混合动力车的买主不应该是私人,而应该是政府,我们应该更多地发展公共交通,而不是仅仅拘泥于汽车绿色技术的开发和运用。
政府将过多地补贴用来进行公共交通的建设,而不是鼓励私人购买汽车,不管是普通汽车还是绿色环保汽车。相反,对于私人购车则要提高购车税率,征收石油产品的资源税。
环保应该是在完善细节基础之上力争追求一种大格局。(YZHK)

Title: Hybrid Car!

There are limits as to how environmental friendly a car can be. Even the most environmental car will never beat the bicycle in that respect. The buyers of these hybrid cars should not be private consumers but the government, who could use them to further improve the public transport system instead of just sticking rigidly to the development and use of this green technology.
The government should allocate more subsidies towards the development of the public transport system instead of encouraging consumers to buy cars, irregardless of whether they are normal or green cars. In fact, the auto purchase tax rates for cars should be increased, along with the levy of a resource tax on petrol. Environmental protection should be based on striving to perfect the details of the pursuit of a general pattern. (YZHK) translated by Edwin

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

生态中国

我这么猜想,是因为看起来中国政府正在开始重视生态问题,同时也在支持不妨碍生态环境的企业。中国政府开通一个新的网站:生态中国http://www.stichtingmilieunet.nl/andersbekekenblog/?p=7074

Eco-China

I guess so, because it seems like the chinese government is getting serious now with eco and supporting eco-friendly companies. They just launched a new site: Eco-China

http://www.stichtingmilieunet.nl/andersbekekenblog/?p=7074

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

私人汽车

在中国,人们富裕后肯定会买辆汽车,不管税率有多高,还是有人买车的,况且汽车行业也会反对政府的高税率。目前,我们只能鼓励人们尽量选择公共交通出行。

Private Cars

In China, after people become wealthy, they certainly want to buy cars. Despite how high the tax rate is, there will still be some people willing to buy. Automobile industries are opposed to high government tax rates. At present we can only encourage people to choose public transport as much as possible when they are going out.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

买车

等技术成熟稳定了、价格合适了,俺也打算来一辆。

Buying cars

Once the technology is mature and reliable and the price is reasonable, I will buy one.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环保汽车

现在看来,市场上的环保车型并不多,汽车还是名副其实的“油老虎”,环保汽车成批量上市还需等待很长时间。

Green car

Currently it seems that green cars are few and far between, and motorcars are true to the name of "oil tigers" (gas guzzlers). A lot more time is needed before we see the high-volume production of green cars.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一些可笑的名词

环保汽车、可持续发展、可再生能源等等都是很可笑的名词,汽车、发展、能源依然是重心,所谓的环保、可持续、可再生只是给自己找个环保的外衣而已,骨子里根本没有任何变化。

在这样的观念指导下,做的再好也只是暂缓危机的到来而已。

A few ridiculous words

Green cars, sustainable development, renewable energy and so on are all ridiculous words. The key issues are cars, development and energy. So-called environmental protection, sustainable development and renewable energy are intended to put an environmental cloak on the matter, when in fact beneath the surface nothing has changed. With this in mind, all we are doing in putting off the inevitable environmental crisis. (Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

对荒谬文字的回答

这是个原教旨主义的立场,由此还带来一个问题,那就是没人会接受你在评论中暗示的那个观点:不制造汽车,也不进行发展。我不明白为什么在尽可能长的时间内推迟环境危机的爆发会是个大错误。难道你愿意危机来得快一点?如果使用可再生能源以及提高效率可以让我们往正确的方向前进,那么它们就是值得推行的。如果你说我不愿意那么做,因为这还不是完美的。那么你不仅自己没有做出任何贡献,也对那些正在这么做的人产生了阻碍。
Translated by Jing Jiang

re ridiculous words

This is a rather fundamentalist position and the problem with it is that nobody will embrace an argument that says -- as your comment implies -- no cars and no development. I am not sure what it so wrong with putting off an environmental crisis as long as possible. Would you want it to come sooner? If renewable energy and greater efficiency can move us in the right direction, surely they are worth pursuing. If you say it's not perfect so I won't do it, not only are you not contributing yourself but you are undermining those who do.