Why China Isn't Ready for Electric Vehicles

Despite China’s ambitions, it’s not well positioned to compete in the global electric vehicle market.

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In this Nov. 5, 2013 photo, a visitor looks at an E30 EV, a small electric vehicle of Chinese state-owned automobile manufacturer Dongfeng Motor Co., at China International Industry Fair in Shanghai, China. Facing pressure to overhaul a worn-out growth model, China’s leaders are promising dramatic changes at a weekend meeting, starting on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, that reform advocates hope will make history by unleashing a new wave of economic transformation.

By 2020, auto analysts expect more than 2 million electric vehicles to be sold every year. That's a huge leap from the 113,000 electric vehicles that were sold in 2012. It's also why China has set its sights on trying to win this “new energy vehicle” sector by 2020.

China's track record is formidable. It launched successful bids to compete in wind turbines, solar panels and personal electronics. However, there are a number of structural problems in how the government and economy work that make it unlikely that a Chinese competitor to Tesla, the Chevy Volt or even the Toyota Prius will emerge any time soon.

The persistent fragmentation of the Chinese automotive industry is a big weight around the neck of an aspiring Chinese electric vehicle, or EV, maker. In the U.S., a hundred car manufacturers in 1914 dwindled to a dozen in 1924, three of which controlled 90 percent of sales. Capitalist forces don't function as well in China. Out of dozens of Chinese car companies, my analysis shows 20 companies hold a market share over 1 percent, their headquarters spread out across a full third of the provinces.

The central government agenda has long wanted to consolidate Chinese auto companies, but local governments resist. The industry employs millions of Chinese, brings in significant research money and can be very lucrative. This is the problem: the Chinese central government has played a large role in shepherding other industries to international domination, funneling funds to the state-owned enterprises to help them succeed. It is trying to do the same with EVs. Beijing may set policy, but local governments implement it, and their spending has been wasteful and inefficient. This is in contrast to the U.S., where domestic efforts to promote electric vehicles – coordinated local efforts among states, private industry programs and federal policy proposals – are growing.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The result? Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers crop up in 23 provinces, but companies have only put 45 percent of certified, designed models into production. The rest may never become commercial products.

Demonstration projects spread across 25 cities combined with $9,000 per car central government incentives were supposed to put hundreds of thousands of cars on the road by the end of 2013. What happened? Very little. Only 8,733 EVs were sold in 2012.

Why don't electric vehicles sell in China? In contrast to wind turbines, electric vehicles are consumer products; there is more to success than a low price tag. Even at 2 million sales worldwide, electric vehicle ownership will still be the domain of relatively affluent early adopters. Granted, a subset of affluent Chinese might decide EVs are their status symbol. But to sell products abroad, Chinese companies must build international consumer brand awareness, a high hurdle the solar and wind turbine industries didn't face.

In order to dominate international electric vehicle manufacturing, the central government needs this hot consumer brand not be an imported Tesla, but a homegrown alternative. The popular domestic brands largely cater to first-time car buyers interested in small, basic cars. The foreign markets Chinese manufacturers currently export to – Egypt, Chile, Ukraine and others – are not much wealthier.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

The average EV is more expensive than a conventional car, and your average Chinese motorist isn't that rich. Yes, luxury cars sell in China, but these tend towards the SUV segment and the ubiquitous, black Audi A6 government officials favor. Granted, in cities where electric car buyers could circumvent expensive license plate auctions or lotteries, this could change. But rich city-dwelling Chinese live in apartments and lack access to the parking and home charging American suburbanites have. Meanwhile, the disconnect between central government ambition and local government means that Beijing, China's most populous city, has just 64 charging poles.

Many American industries are justifiably concerned about competition from China. It would make sense that American electric vehicle manufacturers would be peering over the shoulders at their Chinese rivals just as the market is poised to boom. The unique characteristics of China that have helped drive success in other sectors, however, are not benefiting the more fragmented Chinese auto industry. That's making it very hard for China to translate Tesla, the Volt or the Prius into a success of its own.

Ingrid Akerlind is a fellow for Third Way’s Clean Energy Program.

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  • Corrected on : Corrected 11/13/14: The original version of this post misidentified the Audi A6.