China will have lots of electric cars, but no maker knows what market wants

Buick Velite 5, for sale in China, at 2017 Shanghai auto show   [photo: Ronan Glon]

Buick Velite 5, for sale in China, at 2017 Shanghai auto show [photo: Ronan Glon]

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China is not only the world’s largest single car market, but the market in which the greatest number of plug-in electric cars are sold.

But the country’s government has plans to increase the number of electric cars on its roads dramatically, to curtail noxious exhaust emissions and move China to the forefront of the world’s automotive industry.

It’s long been government-industrial policy to dominate the production of photovoltaic solar panels and lithium-ion battery cells … and the electric cars that will be powered by them.

DON’T MISS: China has licensed 9 electric-car plants, more than U.S. has today

What remains unclear—and troubling for automakers trying to finalize their product plans—is what Chinese buyers actually want in electric cars.

Nor are the final rules under which those cars must be produced particularly clear, says a recent article in industry trade journal Ward’s Auto.

Author Alysha Webb has covered the Chinese EV market for close to a decade now; she highlights the uncertainties facing an industry that must commit hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars to finalize product specifications years before they go into mass production.

One unknown is the necessary battery range to give Chinese buyers confidence that an electric car will meet their travel needs and not leave them stranded.

In the U.S., that range is clearly more than 100 miles—and if Tesla’s various models and the Chevrolet Bolt EV are any indication, it may be 200 miles or more.

But even more worrisome to automakers is the ever-shifting nature of Chinese regulations, including a switch from consumer incentives (which are to be phased out by 2021) to a carbon-credits scheme somewhat similar to California’s zero-emission vehicle sales mandate.

READ THIS: Shanghai auto show: China plugs into electric cars in a big way

As we’ve done before, we reached out for context to old China hand Michael Dunne, president of Hong Kong-based consultancy Dunne Automotive.

What follows is his description of how the Chinese regulatory process really works:

I call it Ambiguity By Design; that’s the hallmark of policy in China. In the original Chinese language, regulations are often written in vague terms to allow leaders maximum leeway for interpretation. Think of it as one of the most potent weapons in the Chinese negotiation toolbox.

Just one example: many regulations  will come with the word “should” where we would say “must”. 

Venucia E30 (Chinese version of Nissan Leaf electric car), Guangzhou Auto Show [photo: ChinaAutoWeb]

Venucia E30 (Chinese version of Nissan Leaf electric car), Guangzhou Auto Show [photo: ChinaAutoWeb]

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In my book, I describe a scene where British government officials visiting the Beijing auto show were made to wait hours to meet the minister of industry. In a moment of frustration the British group finally demanded to know when (or if?)  the Minister would arrive. Auto-show reps disappeared for a bit, then returned with an answer. “The Minister did not say that he was not coming.” 

Et voila. 

There is no question China wants to build the world’s leading electric-car industry. Getting there will feature EV policy zigzags, reversals, U-turns, stops and starts, inconsistencies, gray areas, and redundancies.  Frustrated foreign players can opt out at any time—at their own peril. 

CHECK OUT: Why Toyota’s ‘agonizing’ U-turn toward electric cars? Because China says so

It’s one example of why battle-hardened China veterans like to say: In China, everything is possible, nothing is easy. 

As for the customer and his/her preferences, that’s all important stuff.

But before you get to [developing cars] for that customer, automakers must satisfy the “first” customer in China: the one making (and changing) the rules.


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