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Automakers Try To Convince Chinese To Drive Green

Green car technology is still in its infancy in China, and there's little uniformity in the way of infrastructure to support the vehicles, like this concept car with solar panels, made by Roewe, seen at the Shanghai auto show. (AFP/Getty Images)

The boom in car ownership in China has brought with it many problems familiar to Americans: bad traffic, of course, but also more pollution. So the Chinese government and the auto companies are trying to push a new generation of environmentally friendly car.

But it's not easy.

Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of global electrification, has the somewhat unenviable task of persuading a Chinese public in the first flush of gasoline-powered capitalism to park the Hummer and roll out the Ford hybrid.

Eighty percent of car buyers last year were first-time purchasers, and Gioia is under no illusions that getting China to go green will be easy.

"One of the challenges we have in China is not that electrification will come; it's that our desire to have it tomorrow can't be met because the customer has to be willing," Gioia says. "Here in China, the second large challenge is infrastructure."

The challenge of infrastructure is that most urban Chinese people live in high-rise apartment blocks, so charging electric or hybrid cars is difficult.

Ford is rolling out demonstration models, though none is yet on sale in China. Chinese companies have jumped into the green car business, too. One company, from the southern city of Shenzhen, is BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams.

Paul Lin, senior marketing manager for BYD, says he thinks the dreams of Chinese drivers are less entrenched than their gas-guzzling American counterparts. Chinese are different from Americans and Europeans, he says.

"You people are familiar with cars and petroleum combined together," Lin says. "For Chinese, we don't have those deep habits to using that kind of car, so we can be easy to change."

Not Enough Government Control?

Inside the cavernous exhibition hall at the Shanghai auto show, it seems there's a presentation of a new model of green car almost every minute, usually with a tall, beautiful female model draped across its hood. But even tall, beautiful female models may not be enough to persuade the Chinese public.

"The green technology is not mature enough yet," says 25-year-old visitor Tang Xuejun. "I won't consider buying a green car for another four or five years."

Guo Bing, 30, won't be buying an electric car, either, because he has nowhere to charge it.

In addition to general suspicions of new technology and logistics of where to plug the cars in, there is also a huge problem with Chinese government oversight and regulation.

John Zeng of auto consulting firm J.D. Power in Shanghai says the government wants to see people buy more cars generally to boost industrial growth, but there are a whole array of different standards for charging stations, batteries and all of the infrastructure needed for the green car industry.

"If you want new industry to grow up, you need clear guidance," Zeng says. "If there are no standards, then if you are the consumer, you buy a BYD e6 in Shenzhen and want to drive this car to other cities, like to Shanghai, you'll have big trouble — you have a different charging station."

In other words, Zeng says, the supposedly all-powerful one-party state is not intervening and controlling enough.

An Auto Paradox

From an environmental point of view, there is some hope in the fact that most Chinese only drive an average of 5,000 miles a year. The government discourages people from driving longer distances through huge tolls on national highways, Zeng says, even as the government builds up an extraordinary high-speed rail network.

"Three years ago, when I traveled from Beijing to Tianjin, we drove a car. It took more than three hours. Last year, I traveled again on the high-speed railway — 28 minutes," Zeng says. "So the government is trying to build up enough railway system to reduce the reliance on the car."

Encouraging people to buy cars but then encouraging them not to drive them is one of the more delicious paradoxes of modern China. It looks likely that it will continue to be a crucial tactic in the near future, while the electric and hybrid market in China struggles to take off.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the boom in car ownership in China has brought with it many problems familiar to Americans bad traffic, more pollution. So the Chinese government and the auto companies are trying to push a new generation of environmentally friendly cars.

As Rob Gifford reports from Shanghai, that's not proving an easy task.

(Soundbite of music)

ROB GIFFORD: When it comes to razzmatazz, executives at the Shanghai Auto Show last month showed they could roll out a new product with the best of them.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Ford Motor Company's director of global electrification, Nancy Gioia.

GIFFORD: But Nancy Gioia has the somewhat unenviable task of persuading a Chinese public in the first flush of gasoline-powered capitalism to park the Hummer and roll out the Ford hybrid. Eighty percent of Chinese car buyers last year were first-time purchasers, and Gioia is under no illusions that getting China to go green will be easy.

Ms. NANCY GIOIA (Director, Global Electrification, Ford Motor Company): One of the challenges we have in China is not that electrification will come; it's that our desire to have it tomorrow can't be met because the customer has to be willing. And so here in China, the second large challenge is infrastructure.

GIFFORD: The challenge of infrastructure is that most urban Chinese people live in high-rise apartment blocks, so charging electric or hybrid cars is difficult. Undeterred, Chinese companies have jumped into the green car business too.

One such company from the southern city of Shenzhen is BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams. Senior marketing manager Paul Lin is hopeful. He says he thinks the dreams of Chinese drivers are less entrenched than their gas-guzzling American and European counterparts.

Mr. PAUL LIN: (Senior Marketing Manager, BYD): People are familiar with (unintelligible) car and petroleum combined together. But for Chinese, we don't like have that kind of the habits to using this kind of car, so we can be easy to change.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Inside the cavernous exhibition hall, there was a presentation of a new model of green car almost every minute, usually with a tall, beautiful female model draped across its hood. But even tall, beautiful female models may not be yet enough to persuade the Chinese public.

Ms. TANG XUEJUN: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: The green technology is not mature enough yet, says 25-year-old visitor, Tang Xuejun. I won't consider buying a green car for at least four or five years.

Mr. GUO BING: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Thirty-year-old Guo Bing won't be buying an electric car either, since he has nowhere to charge it.

Then there's also the huge problem of Chinese government oversight and regulation, or lack of it.

John Zeng of auto consultants JD Power says the government wants to see people buy more cars to boost industrial growth, but there are a whole array of different standards for charging stations and batteries

Mr. JOHN ZENG (Director, Automotive Forecasting, JD Power and Associates): If you want to new industry to grow up, you need to have a clear guidance. If there's no standards, that means if you, you are a consumer, if you buy a BYD E6 in Shenzhen, if you want to drive this car to other cities like Shanghai, you'll probably going to have big trouble, because they have total different charging station.

GIFFORD: In other words, says Zeng, the supposedly all-powerful one-party state is not intervening and controlling enough.

From an environmental point of view, there is some hope in the fact that many Chinese only drive an average of 5,000 miles a year. The government discourages people from driving longer distances through huge tolls on national highways, says John Zeng, even as it builds up an extraordinary high speed rail network.

Mr. ZENG: Three years ago, when I traveled from Beijing to Tianjin, we drive a car; it took more than three hours. And last year, I traveled from Beijing to Tianjin again and I took high speed railway, 28 minutes. So I think it's the government ways to try to build up enough railway system to reduce the reliance on the car.

GIFFORD: Encouraging people to buy cars, but then encouraging them not to drive them is one of the more delicious paradoxes of modern China. It looks likely it will continue to be a crucial tactic as the electric and hybrid market in China struggles to take off.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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