Since the 1950s, California has been a global leader in efforts to limit and then eliminate emissions from motor vehicles.

But with hazardous and choking air pollution in its major cities, not to mention traffic jams to rival any in the world, China may prove to be the Golden State's equal—and perhaps even surpass it in regulating vehicles and their operation.

The latest foray is a long-term plan to impose a congestion charge on all vehicles entering the capital city of Beijing, possibly including a lottery to determine when those vehicles could legally be driven within the city.

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According to a story on Bloomberg News two days ago, Beijing's city legislature has asked its government to draw up details of a plan to use "economic measures" to limit vehicle use within the capital city.

The legislature now views air pollution, chronic congestion, and a lack of parking as serious impediments to efficient management of the city of 11.5 million residents.

While a few Indian cities actually have worse air, China's smog is much publicized. Its severity was underscored when authorities cracked down on thousands of factories in the prelude to the Beijing Olympics, offering residents their first successive weeks of clean air in years.

china traffic main 630

china traffic main 630

Over the past five years, the number of cars in Beijing has risen to 5.6 million, nearing next year's cap of 6 million vehicles set by the city authority some years ago.

The city has had a quota system for issuing registrations for new vehicles since 2011.

But while the Beijing lottery gives highly favorable treatment to electric cars, almost half of the special plates issued in October for "new energy vehicles" remained unused by their expiration in April.

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Congestion charges now exist in a few European cities, led by London, where it costs almost $20 to bring a conventional vehicle into the central city during business hours on weekdays.

Zero-emission vehicles are presently exempt from the congestion charge, making them popular with commuters into England's capital, and a similar provision might be included in any Beijing congestion-charge pricing.

The challenges to selling plug-in cars in China are largely the same as they have been in the U.S. and other countries: high cost, lack of public charging infrastructure, and concern over the long-term life of their battery packs.

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD, the Chinese maker that's the world's largest seller of plug-in vehicles—it sold more than Nissan and Tesla did in 2015—has seen far more success with plug-in hybrids than with battery-electric vehicles.

Buyers presumably saw plug-in hybrids as the better bet precisely because they had gasoline engines, meaning that while they received the same benefits as true zero-emission vehicles, they didn't actually ever have to be plugged in to receive the incentives.

China has long wanted to have a major footprint in the world's electric-vehicle industry, seeing it as a way to leapfrog established global automakers.

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But BYD has stumbled in plans to export electric passenger vehicles to North America, and is now focusing on all-electric buses, where it is seeing some success.

Other electric-car brands in China are often joint ventures between Chinese and global makers, increasingly sold under new brands indicate their status as new-energy vehicles.

None of those vehicles have been notably successful, due to consumer resistance.


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