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Kicking the Mule
Jamais Cascio, 12 May 05

crv.jpgIf China's going to clean up its environment, it's going to have to do something about the mules.

Chinese Rural Vehicles (CRVs or "mules") are small, typically three-wheeled vehicles powered by a single-cylinder diesel engine. There are about 22 million of them in China, and according to a study done by Daniel Sperling at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, they account for a quarter of China's diesel consumption -- and put out as much pollution as all other Chinese conventional vehicles.

The CRV dates back to a failed plan to industrialise China's rural areas in the 1960s. The surplus machinery was redirected to building a replacement for mules as the workhorse of rural transport, and so the cheap and basic CRV was born. The growth in the number of these vehicles over the past 25 years has been spectacular [...]. The most common model has three wheels, though there are also two and four-wheeled versions. They are simple enough for farmers to put them together themselves, although about half are assembled by three major companies.

What's particularly amazing about the CRVs is that, although three times as many of them were produced in China than conventional cars and trucks in 2002 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), few Western academics study them; Sperling and the ITS seem to be the only source of substantive information about the mules. (Sperling, et al's 2004 paper, Chinese Rural Vehicles: An Explanatory Analysis of Technology, Economics, Industrial Organization, Energy Use, Emissions, and Policy, is available for free download (PDF). A newer paper, Rural vehicles in China: appropriate policy for appropriate technology is only available to subscribers to Transport Policy.) Most transportation and environmental observers have focused on the growth of car ownership in urban China, missing the continued use of highly-inefficient, terribly dirty -- but incredibly cheap (~$300) -- diesel vehicles in the countryside.

CRVs are an entirely indigenous development, and have been a boon to Chinese farmers bringing their goods to market. For years, Chinese officials turned a blind eye to their production and use, but in 2002 the government announced that CRVs must meet limited emissions standards (so-called EURO 1) by this year. It's unclear how well the myriad CRV manufacturers -- many of which are unlicensed and operate quietly in rural villages -- will meet this requirement.

But this also suggests a real opportunity. Minor improvements in engine design could dramatically improve vehicle efficiency, and the reliance on diesel suggests a possible opening for biodiesel (although China's agricultural problems may militate against growing crops for fuel instead of food). This is an ideal Fab Lab-style scenario -- cheap, open, widespread production of a more efficient (but still simple and user-serviceable) diesel engine for Chinese Rural Vehicles. Sperling argues that such simple improvements to the engine design could cut emissions in half and improve fuel efficiency by 50%. Given the number of mules on the road, this would be a huge step towards improving China's environmental and energy situation.

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We at INFORM recently published a report. Here's a summary:

The Transportation Boom in Asia: Crisis and Opportunity for the United States carefully details the nexus between transportation policies, oil usage, the potential crisis over access to oil, and the opportunities that face China, India, and the US. It also provides short- and long-term solutions that can reduce the price we are paying for our addiction to oil.

In 2005, the combined population of China and India was 2.2 billion people, more than one-third of the world’s population. Projections estimate that by 2010, these two countries will add another 246 million people. As these populations swell and the economies of these countries expand, they also aspire to a lifestyle similar to that in industrialized nations—which leads to growing motor vehicle fleets and fuels additional oil consumption. This increasing thirst for oil puts China and India on a collision course with the US, which previously enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the world’s oil resources.

Using this scenario as a backdrop, The Transportation Boom in Asia examines four key issues that will affect the outcome of this potential conflict:

- The trends in transportation development and oil consumption in China and India as they relate to forecasts about the future of oil
- The consequences of the US’s oil dependence, particularly for its transportation system, and the effect that China’s and India’s soaring oil use will have on the US if Congress and the president do not act

- The goals that these three countries have established for developing sustainable transportation

- The efforts that they are, or are not, taking to address the impending crisis over access to the world’s oil resources

The report details two major trends in China and India. First, oil consumption in both countries exceeds production, forcing them to seek foreign sources of oil to meet their needs. Of course, their need for oil will only increase as their motor vehicle fleets continue to grow, which will increase the competition for limited oil supplies. Second, realizing that they cannot build transportation systems dependent solely on oil-derived fuels and that the combustion of gasoline and diesel fuels produce adverse health effects, both countries have aggressively pursued the use of natural gas vehicle (NGV) technology. China and India have already become two of the top-ten countries using NGVs, with India’s fleet of 200,000 NGVs ranking even larger than the US’s. Aside from reducing oil dependence and urban air pollution, NGV technology establishes the foundational systems needed to shift to hydrogen-fuel technology.

The report also describes two trends in the US. One trend involves the risks posed by the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Even though the US already consumes more oil than any other nation (25 percent of world oil consumption, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population), its demand for oil is still increasing, which only increases its dependence on foreign oil. This continuing reliance on oil-derived fuels places the US economy and national security at risk, particularly as the US closes military bases in other nations and concentrates its forces on US soil. The other trend concerns the US political leadership, which has neglected the alternative-fuel programs launched in the 1990s—programs that demonstrated the feasibility of developing natural gas and hydrogen–electric technologies. Even though the US has pledged $1.7 billion over five years to develop hydrogen technologies, it has refused to support the NGV technology that could help meet this five-year goal.

As The Transportation Boom in Asia explains, NGVs offer an immediate short-term solution to the impending crisis over the access to oil. Furthermore, using and refining NGV technology offers several benefits: reduced air pollution, diversified domestic fuel capabilities, and technology that opens a pathway to hydrogen fuel. Developing hydrogen technology, which relies on a pollution-free fuel that can be made from water using renewable energy sources, is the final step in the transition to sustainable transportation.

The US could benefit in numerous ways if it chose to pursue NGV technology for domestic use. Beyond reducing air pollution and the greenhouse gases responsible for causing global climate change, the US could create jobs and bolster a vital domestic industry if existing and future NGV technology was exported to China, India, and other Asian nations. However, without taking this initial step, the path to hydrogen could lead through Beijing or New Delhi, rather than Washington.

The Transportation Boom in Asia also makes eight policy recommendations that government policymakers could follow to ensure a healthier, more secure future for America and to collaborate with Asian and other industrializing nations in building a sustainable world. Acting on these recommendations would expand the NGV industry in the US, deploy NGV and related technologies from the US to industrializing nations in Asia, and develop renewable energy technologies such as wind power, photovoltaics, and hydropower.

It is available on our site.


Posted by: EAM on 12 May 05

The Transportation Boom in Asia: Crisis and Opportunity for the United States carefully details the nexus between transportation policies, oil usage, the potential crisis over access to oil, and the opportunities that face China, India, and the US. It also provides short- and long-term solutions that can reduce the price we are paying for our addiction to oil.

In 2005, the combined population of China and India was 2.2 billion people, more than one-third of the world’s population. Projections estimate that by 2010, these two countries will add another 246 million people. As these populations swell and the economies of these countries expand, they also aspire to a lifestyle similar to that in industrialized nations—which leads to growing motor vehicle fleets and fuels additional oil consumption. This increasing thirst for oil puts China and India on a collision course with the US, which previously enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the world’s oil resources.

Using this scenario as a backdrop, The Transportation Boom in Asia examines four key issues that will affect the outcome of this potential conflict:

ó The trends in transportation development and oil consumption in China and India as they relate to forecasts about the future of oil
ó The consequences of the US’s oil dependence, particularly for its transportation system, and the effect that China’s and India’s soaring oil use will have on the US if Congress and the president do not act
ó The goals that these three countries have established for developing sustainable transportation
ó The efforts that they are, or are not, taking to address the impending crisis over access to the world’s oil resources

The report details two major trends in China and India. First, oil consumption in both countries exceeds production, forcing them to seek foreign sources of oil to meet their needs. Of course, their need for oil will only increase as their motor vehicle fleets continue to grow, which will increase the competition for limited oil supplies. Second, realizing that they cannot build transportation systems dependent solely on oil-derived fuels and that the combustion of gasoline and diesel fuels produce adverse health effects, both countries have aggressively pursued the use of natural gas vehicle (NGV) technology. China and India have already become two of the top-ten countries using NGVs, with India’s fleet of 200,000 NGVs ranking even larger than the US’s. Aside from reducing oil dependence and urban air pollution, NGV technology establishes the foundational systems needed to shift to hydrogen-fuel technology.

The report also describes two trends in the US. One trend involves the risks posed by the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Even though the US already consumes more oil than any other nation (25 percent of world oil consumption, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population), its demand for oil is still increasing, which only increases its dependence on foreign oil. This continuing reliance on oil-derived fuels places the US economy and national security at risk, particularly as the US closes military bases in other nations and concentrates its forces on US soil. The other trend concerns the US political leadership, which has neglected the alternative-fuel programs launched in the 1990s—programs that demonstrated the feasibility of developing natural gas and hydrogen–electric technologies. Even though the US has pledged $1.7 billion over five years to develop hydrogen technologies, it has refused to support the NGV technology that could help meet this five-year goal.

As The Transportation Boom in Asia explains, NGVs offer an immediate short-term solution to the impending crisis over the access to oil. Furthermore, using and refining NGV technology offers several benefits: reduced air pollution, diversified domestic fuel capabilities, and technology that opens a pathway to hydrogen fuel. Developing hydrogen technology, which relies on a pollution-free fuel that can be made from water using renewable energy sources, is the final step in the transition to sustainable transportation.

The US could benefit in numerous ways if it chose to pursue NGV technology for domestic use. Beyond reducing air pollution and the greenhouse gases responsible for causing global climate change, the US could create jobs and bolster a vital domestic industry if existing and future NGV technology was exported to China, India, and other Asian nations. However, without taking this initial step, the path to hydrogen could lead through Beijing or New Delhi, rather than Washington.

The Transportation Boom in Asia also makes eight policy recommendations that government policymakers could follow to ensure a healthier, more secure future for America and to collaborate with Asian and other industrializing nations in building a sustainable world. Acting on these recommendations would expand the NGV industry in the US, deploy NGV and related technologies from the US to industrializing nations in Asia, and develop renewable energy technologies such as wind power, photovoltaics, and hydropower.

It's available on our site front page.


Posted by: EAM on 12 May 05

When I was in India this past December a similar vehicle was used all over the place - an often three wheeled vehicle they were used as open air taxis, but also transportation vehicles for many other items.

However at least in Delhi they all ran on compressed natural gas.

I wonder if similar technology might be importable from India to China to cut down on emissions?

Shannon


Posted by: Shannon Clark on 13 May 05



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