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CHINA’S ELECTRIC AVENUES

By Gavin Conway     23 Sep 2016

Gas-powered cars are a thing of the past. Here’s how—and why—the electric motor is making inroads around the world and particularly in China, with Shanghai leading the way

Imagine a conversation with your grandchildren in 25-odd years about the way cars used to be. They’ll look at you with incredulity as you explain how you’d pour 20 gallons of highly explosive liquid into a tank, which would then be fed into cylinders that would generate contained explosions. Then they’ll tut when you describe the stuff that came out of the tailpipe and what it meant for the environment.

There is absolutely no question that the future of personal transport is electric. The barriers to more widespread acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs) are falling dramatically every year. Although they’re expensive now, Bloomberg analysts reckon that by 2022, long-range electric cars won’t cost any more than their gas-powered cousins. The distance that an EV can travel on a charge is increasing, too, relieving the dreaded ‘range anxiety.’ BMW recently announced that its latest pure-electric i3 model, for example, can travel up to 195 miles on a charge, thanks to higher-density batteries.

The move by carmakers toward electric power is also about meeting ever-tougher emissions regulations. Simply put, most manufacturers need to introduce electric power, either with hybrids or pure-electric cars, to bring their average emissions down to hit government targets. Volkswagen learned this lesson the hard way in the wake of its colossally expensive emissions scandal last year, which involved clever software to cheat emissions tests (Volkswagen’s diesel emissions were much dirtier than official testing revealed).

Volkswagen’s humbled response to the scandal is the slightly dubious sounding ‘Together–Strategy 2025.’ While it might sound like one of the Democratic Party’s convention slogans, it is actually the biggest ‘change process’ in the company’s history. VW is throwing everything it has at electrification, promising more than 30 new EVs by 2025, with a massive sales target of 3 million cars a year. If you needed more evidence that EVs are set to become an unstoppable force on our roads, this is it.

EVs are no longer about being ‘greener that thou,’ either. The very best pure-electric cars offer a fantastically good driving experience—they’re very quick, super-silent and uncannily smooth. They also, crucially, emit no noxious exhaust (with the caveat that their ultimate ‘cleanliness’ also depends on how the power they use is generated; hydro and solar good, coal not so much).

As for hybrids—gas engines working in combination with electric motors to help reduce fuel consumption and emissions—you can buy one that’s as unassuming and vanilla as a Toyota Prius, or a thrilling supercar made by Porsche or Ferrari that will get you to 62 mph in less time than you can say ‘three seconds.’

The compelling case that electric cars offer to countries like China explains their fantastic rise in popularity there. China has typically struggled with poor air quality in its densely populated urban centers. So the government, which is desperate to reduce air pollution and its reliance on oil imports, offers dramatic subsidies for EV buyers. The Wall Street Journal reports that this has helped quadruple Chinese EV sales to 331,000 cars in 2015 compared with 2014.

And unlike the West, China doesn’t have a car culture that romanticizes the open road and the rumble of powerful V8s—cars are viewed mainly as a tool to get from A to B (or as a status symbol for the very wealthy). That attitude very much suits the rather utilitarian image of more mainstream EVs.

It is a hugely exciting time for EVs in China, a country with the world’s largest automobile market, larger even than that of the US. More people than ever can afford new cars, and the government is on track to see 5 million EVs on roads by 2020. The goal for China is also to be producing 1 million EVs a year by then.

And these numbers have not been lost on one of the most forward-looking, visionary EV industry players. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is reportedly negotiating a deal worth up to US$9 billion to build a factory in Shanghai to produce the company’s high-end EVs. There are already 19 Tesla outlets in China, and manufacturing the cars there would bring big import tax breaks for the company, making Teslas more affordable for the rising Chinese middle class.

Indeed, Shanghai is one of most progressive cities in China: in a clever ploy to encourage people to drive electric cars to the city’s two main airports, the government is installing 1,500 charging points (after all, it would be a real downer to get back from your holiday in the sun to find your battery flat). Even better, airport authorities are switching all of their ground support vehicles—hundreds of shuttle buses and aircraft tugs—to electric or hybrid power. And to make sure all those EVs are as clean as possible, the airport authority is installing solar energy panels.

Big changes are happening around the world, but this isn’t the first time that electric cars have challenged the dominance of gas power. In fact, electric cars enjoyed a golden age at the turn of the century—that’s 1900, not 2000, by the way. They were praised as ideal city cars where a big range doesn’t really matter, for their smoothness and quiet running, and for the fact that you didn’t have to use a crank handle to start them, or shift gears once up and running.

But as highway infrastructure improved—bigger distances could be easily covered—and gas-powered cars became easier to use, EVs went into dramatic decline, defeated mainly by limited range and high cost.

As both those challenges recede, this time around the face-off between gas and electric is going to have a rather different outcome. Your grandkids will approve.

Do you think your city is doing enough to accommodate more electric vehicles on the road? Tweet your thoughts with #momentumtravel.

Photo: Shutterstock

Gavin Conway

Gavin Conway has been writing about the automotive industry for nearly 25 years, including stints as editor of Classic & Sports Car and editor-in-chief of Automobile. He has also been a regular contributor to The Sunday Times for the last 12 years and has written for the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and many more.

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