Despite Pollution, China Still Isn't Committed To Electric Cars

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BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

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The images have made for grim viewing even if you don't live within the frame: Pictures and details emerging from China earlier this year showed smog on levels not previously recorded.

Streets were choked and people were strongly advised to stay indoors, and avoid any sort of activity that might see you breathing in greater quantities of the dirty air.

And yet, despite scenes such as these, that greenest of transport options, the electric car, is faring particularly poorly in China.

According to China Daily, the country's Association of Automobile Manufacturers said only 3,000 electric vehicles were sold there in the first three quarters of 2012. That's little more in total than Chevrolet sold Volt plugins in some individual months in 2012, in the U.S.

So why, in a country whose cities are choked by smog, is the electric car doing so poorly in China?

Familiar issues

To an extent, Chinese consumers are rejecting electric cars on the same grounds that their counterparts all over the world are skeptical about them.

Price is the number one concern. Despite China's increasing economy, the average electric car is still significantly more expensive than its regular gasoline counterpart, and consumers looking for a quick return, within the typical ownership period, aren't seeing the benefits.

That's despite some huge discounts and perks, in some areas of China. In Beijing, the city has started offering free license plates and a massive $19,000 rebate on electric cars in an effort to encourage sales. As a fairly recent move it isn't clear how significantly this has impacted sales, but such a deal in any other country would have electric cars flying off the forecourts.

Part of the price issue is down to China's high import taxes, making imported products like batteries expensive, even when used in domestic electric vehicles.

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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Will Chinese firm Wanxiang Group's recent purchase of American battery firm A123 Systems see this change? We'll have to wait and see.

The next reason for China's slow electric car sales is also familiar--lifestyle changes. Existing electric car owners are finding that they might not be making as many compromizes as they initially suspected (and indeed, have the joy of never stopping at a gas station on the way to anywhere) but it takes a leap of faith for most drivers to realize this.

Tim Dunne, director of Asia-Pacific market intelligence at consumer-research firm JD Power and Associates, explains the thought process of many potential buyers.

"It sounds great, recharging half the battery while having lunch... but at the same time, I can drive my car to my local filling station and in five minutes I can put in enough fuel to run it for a week. If you only have five minutes before you've got to pick up your son or daughter from baseball or ballet, then you've got a challenge."

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