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Green Car China
Jamais Cascio, 24 Mar 05

Wired magazine's April 2005 cover story is hybrid cars, with several articles of varying WorldChanging interest. We mentioned the main piece on Toyota, "Rise of the Green Machine," yesterday; the comparison of current hybrid vehicles (written by the founder of a Detroit-based car website, so adjust your expectations accordingly) is also getting a bit of attention. But the most important article in the bunch has to be "China's Next Cultural Revolution," by Lisa Margonelli. It's an examination of China's oil dilemma (encapsulated in the quote, "When everyone can afford a car, you won't be able to drive.") and the push for a rapid move to fuel cell vehicles.

Many of the themes the article touches on will be familiar to WorldChanging readers: questions about sustainable development; the need to look ahead to respond not just to current problems, but possibilities down the road; and the big one, opportunities for leapfrogging.

Decades behind developed nations when it comes to supporting a car culture, China may actually benefit from its very backwardness. All those bicycles mean there isn't a cumbersome - and entrenched - gasoline infrastructure to stand in the way of the next big thing. That's why China hopes to eventually bypass the oil-based auto culture and go right to a hydrogen economy. "Some theorists believe China has an advantage with fuel cells because it has no resistance," says General Motors vice president David Chen as he attends to a Shanghai dignitary at Bibendum. "It's been cut off from the world for 30 years. It may be in a unique situation to leapfrog."

The leap won't be unassisted. GM and DaimlerChrysler have already agreed to introduce fuel cell-based vehicles in limited numbers; Shell hopes to work with Shanghai the way it has helped Iceland shift heavily towards hydrogen. In the nearer term, Toyota will be opening up a Prius factory by the end of 2005. But while there's much discussion of the ways in which western automakers and energy companies can help bring the hydrogen fuel cell future to China, the article also makes a point of emphasizing home-grown innovation, with Chinese characteristics. The "Aspire" (pictured above, from an article at China's New York consulate's website) is an electric car designed and built by students at Wuhan University of Technology. The car comes with a bicycle, for use when traffic jams get too heavy.

Margonelli makes the larger point about how cultural differences affect auto design late in the article:

Across the hall, the 863 Program unveils its newest prototype, the Spring Light 3, a fuel cell-electric hybrid with steer-by-wire technology and regenerative braking. Target price: about $5,000 - the car for the new masses. While Western automakers often boast that their enviro-wagons make "no compromises," the 863 Program makes compromise its guiding principle. Like the funky Aspire, the Spring Light takes you where you want to go, without promising more. American cars are all ego, but the Aspire and Spring Light are friendly, even neighborly. They're all about getting along, not getting away.

It's not a perfect article; Margonelli feels the need to deprecate current hybrid cars and their drivers (in order to make the Chinese efforts sound more revolutionary, I suppose), and doesn't look too deeply at just how China will manage to overcome some of the remaining big problems with fuel cells (most notably, expense of components and clean sources of large amounts of hydrogen). The two sources for extracting hydrogen mentioned in the piece, natural gas and coal, are by no means carbon-neutral; a China that depends heavily upon such sources for its hydrogen economy may find itself still one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions two decades hence (when the issue is more likely to be the top of everyone's agenda).

When we noted last year that China foresaw having 140 million cars on the road by 2020, we said that this resulted in two potential scenarios:

If the Chinese continue to pursue gasoline or (petroleum) diesel-burning cars, they'll be able to take advantage of cheap auto technologies, a global market of vehicles to purchase from, and a global market to sell into. They'll also face rapidly-tightening oil supplies, instability in oil-producing regions, and competition with existing petroleum consumers over access, as well as dumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (along with other non-greenhouse but still very dangerous emissions). A shift to alternative energy cars will happen later, potentially putting China behind more forward-looking markets. This is a world of fast vehicle-ownership growth now, big problems by 2020.

If the Chinese opt instead to pursue alternative energy vehicles (biodiesel, hybrids, fuel cells) as quickly as possible, they'll be coming in at a point still high on the price curve for those technologies, a limited number of suppliers of both components and complete vehicles, and few markets outside of China ready for such vehicles (either because the existing infrastructure is heavily weighted towards petroleum cars, or because the economics of the more expensive alternative power vehicles don't work out). They'll also be a market leader when other parts of the world do start large-scale shifts to alt-energy cars (ironically, something which would take longer to happen due to reduced Chinese competition for oil), and will be farther along in their efforts to clean up the national environment. This is a world where vehicle supplies (and cost) don't meet consumer demand early on, but looks more profitable and clean by 2020.

So, which path will China take? Trouble now (but rewards later), or convenience now (but problems later)?

It looks like China may soon be making its choice.

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Comments

I know some kind of car is inevitable, people will always need convenient and speedy transportation. But the idea that hydrogen (or any fuel) - all by itself - is going to 'green' cities, or even transportation, is simply wrong.

Too seldom included in this discussion are the secondary effects of car culture. Yes, CO2 and peak oil are immediate problems, but even clean cars will continue to be environmentally destructive until their design context changes.
Cars create sprawl, they take up an enormous amount of space, they spend much of their useful lives idle. There is every reason to think that when cars burn cleaner, people will be even more inclined to drive, increasing demand for roads, fuel, parking and parts, which to date are still stacked high in landfills.

It is ironic that while China (and much of the developing world) strives for its 140 million new cars, the US is training its urban designers and planners to redesign urban space to render cars as unnecessary as possible.
I love the post on Toyota's small personal vehicle - this idea has potential - but clean fuel cars will not help us without a new context to use them in: sharing, transit, better urban spaces and fully recylable components.

Jamais leaves us with two scenarios, I would like to propose a third: China, along with the rest of the urbanising world, undertakes a rethinking of transportation, where we attempt to find the most effective way to move people with minimal impact, not the most effective way to sell them all 'cleaner' cars. A lot to hope for? You bet. Isn't that what we do here?


Posted by: Justus on 24 Mar 05

Justus, if you take a moment to look back through the site (particularly the Newly Electric Green category), you'll see numerous posts laying out detailed arguments (and designs) for pedestrian/bicycle-friendly, denser, smarter cities. The need to get away from sprawl is not something ignored or dismissed here; it's something we talk about with great frequency. I didn't think I needed to put a disclaimer indicating such on posts about cars, but perhaps I should.

The reality is that, as much as we might wish otherwise, personal transportation via automobile is hugely attractive to many people. If we work solely towards changing cultures and societies to abandon suburban sprawl for urban density, we run the risk of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. A future of China pushing hard to adopt electric or hydrogen cars is more likely than one of the Chinese deciding not to adopt an auto-based transportation infrastructure, and more sustainable than one of the Chinese relying primarily upon petroleum.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 24 Mar 05

Jamias, thank you for the links; as usual, my ignorance of this site got ahead of me. I was reacting to the article/ post itself, not the entire site. I didn't think I was introducing a new subject or anything.

I agree that we are smarter to work toward both (win/win) instead of trying to achieve utopia at the expense of reality.
My point remains, though; you say a hydrogen future is more sustainable: I'm unconvinced. If that were all that changed, we would still destroy ourselves. The rethinking and remaking is more significant than new ways of doing the same old thing.
That's all I'm saying. And that's what you guys say here every day, so despite my tone or ignorance of your archives, I'm not implying you don't get it.


Posted by: Justus on 24 Mar 05

Along the lines of Justus' comments, I'm surprised there isn't more discussion here about things like Personal Rapid Transit.

This article, for example, on an idea for high-speed Maglev PRT is a real eye-opener.

I honestly think that a PRT system which is subsurface (cut and cover design), and which can be used for both local (lower speed) and long-distance (higher speed) travel is one approach which actually has the potential to mostly supplant automobiles, trucking, rail, and domestic air travel. The only thing it probably couldn't supplant is long-distance travel primarily over water.

PRT notions have been around for years, but it's only now that we have the technology (in materials, computing, communications, etc) to actually make usable, fail-safe systems.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 25 Mar 05

Justus makes the point that many cars spend most of their life idle. China's metro areas are so densely packed that I can imagine that the typical Chinese city dweller doesn't need a car except on occasion. It doesn't make sense to 'own' one. I'm surprised that none of the articles I've seen on Worldchanging have mentioned the growing business in shared cars (Zip car for example).


Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 25 Mar 05

The greatest problem with mass transit is the massively ballooning costs involved. China litteraly doesnt have the money to mass transit itself its too big.


Posted by: wintermane on 25 Mar 05

I'm surprised that none of the articles I've seen on Worldchanging have mentioned the growing business in shared cars (Zip car for example).

They've touched upon it many times.
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001920.html
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/000899.html
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002198.html
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/000316.html
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001613.html


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 25 Mar 05

I have invention record[since/25/7/2000/ register N.5865/in syria] of electrical system install in electric-car its load 1 ton and we try to make the load greater.the invention supplies the electric-car with its need of electricity permanently day and night during parking and driving .by using this system ,could produced friendly environment electrical-cars [with the same specifications of the using cars now]free from exhaust gas and not need oil or fuel there is no need to stop car for battery recharging[recharge battery automatical].this system can be used in the production of electric generators with different power .we ready to agreement with you ,and to execute invention at your laboratories or in my laboratories. because I have not enough money.The invention depend on electro-magnetic capacity addition moment of inertia [two parts{ mechanical part} ,{electrical part}]
the invention consist of new electric - charger[my design ] and two groups of batteries.
batteries.group / A / batteries. group / B /

how it work ( general view ) ?
when / A /battery group supply the electric engine of car by the electric .
in the same time the / B / in charging . when / A / be empty , the / B / will be supplying the electric engine of car by the electric , and / A / in charging.
the employ materials [iron,copper,plastic] my purpose from these invention to make the air is clean ,[in other apply possible use it to provide the factories by its electric[ use it in the stationary case easier than the mobile case] if we execute the invention possible say good-by smoke and pollution, possible you sent watcher to see and finance,
to explain the invention we need to long meeting because it not easy. unable to explain it by writing in any way we use in it the gravity law ,the electro-magnetic capacity ,moment of inertia ,levers laws ,we consume the electric power and gravity power to produce electric quantity more than consumed electric power and we consume all the used gravity power ,as you know the gravity power is free I can not explain more.
designer
ENG.Amir kara fallah-syria


Posted by: Amir kara fallah on 4 Apr 05



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