China wants all electric cars: will it work? Reasons and reactions

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BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

It was quaint and adorable when Norway did it, saying it would end sales of cars with internal-combustion engines by 2025.

The Netherlands followed suit, with little fanfare. More recently, France and the U.K. have enacted various forms of bans on non-electrified vehicles, on varying schedules.

Now that China has said it's considering timetables for doing the same, the world's auto industry is paying attention. Very, very close attention.

DON'T MISS: China developing timetable to end sales, production of gasoline cars

A week ago Sunday, Chinese government media said the country's regulators were already assessing timetables for ending sales of vehicles with gasoline and diesel engines.

"Those measures will certainly bring profound changes for our car industry's development," said Chinese deputy industry minister, Xin Guobin, suggesting that "turbulent" times lay ahead for the global auto industry.

Indeed. With bells on.

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

BYD Qin EV300

BYD Qin EV300

BYD Qin EV300

BYD Qin EV300

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

The reasons are simple: global industrial dominance, the sticky political problem of severe urban air pollution, and a lack of intellectual property in plug-in hybrid vehicle technology.

China's elite and its political leaders accept the science of climate change; there is no domestic debate over whether it's real. (To be fair, little overt domestic debate on many issues exists within authoritarian China.)

Most important is the long-held goal of the Chinese government-industrial complex to dominate crucial 21st-century industries and ensure that its companies have the largest shares of global production of photovoltaic solar cells, current and future battery cells, and electric cars.

CHECK OUT: GM CEO Barra attacks China gas-car ban, suggests buyers should decide

Second, China's major cities all suffer from extreme air pollution, due to emissions from everything from inefficient and outmoded industrial plants to an explosion of privately held vehicles.

The severe smog has become a political issue, and both national and local governments are making visible efforts to clamp down on egregious or highly visible polluters.

Third, while some automakers—General Motors most recently, in comments by CEO Mary Barra—suggest that plug-in hybrids may be a more practical transitional technology, Chinese automakers have little intellectual property in that area.

Buick Velite 5 to be sold in China (Chevrolet Volt in North America)

Buick Velite 5 to be sold in China (Chevrolet Volt in North America)

It's also worth noting that China's domestic oil production and reserves are far outweighed by its consumption, so every additional gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel that's burned represents hard currency spent in the Mideast on oil imports.

So ample reasons exist for national and local regulators to align behind carrots and sticks to move the country rapidly toward battery-electric vehicles.

That matters because China has been the world's largest auto market for a decade now, and its annual sales of 28 million vehicle last year dwarfed those of the U.S. at 17.5 million.

That annual total is expected to grow in coming years, and it's noteworthy that GM now sells more cars in China than it does in its home market of North America. So does VW Group against its European sales.

Will it work?

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]

Old China hand Michael Dunne, of consultants Dunne Automotive Ltd., wrote that Chinese consumers aren't particularly interested in electric cars.

But, he suggested, that doesn't really matter:

China's central planners won't let electrics fail. I came away from meetings with officials over the summer more convinced than ever that China is committed to finding a way to ignite real, sustained demand for electric vehicles. Whatever it takes.

That's because electrics offer three huge benefits:  Independence from Mideast Oil, cleaner city skies and an opportunity for global technology leadership.

Dunne said much the same in a quote in The Los Angeles Times, writing that whatever regulations emerge from the opaque planning process, they will be “designed to give China a decisive upper hand in the market for electric vehicles.”

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

Another longtime observer of the Chinese auto market, Alysha Webb, broadly agreed with Dunne, but said that rules will likely change over time and the path may not be clearcut—in fact, it may be decidedly rocky for all makers—as the country figures out its policy on the fly.

In response to our questions, she wrote:

I really think the Western media has misrepresented this as something that is going to happen soon, and something completely new.

As the saying goes, "China makes policy by crossing the river [and] feeling for the stones." This is a goal. It fits in with the overall trajectory of its EV policies.

It may require foreign automakers to hand over some intellectual property, though I suspect there will be a lot of argument about that with the foreign automakers. China already requires the battery to be from a local manufacturer, so that would be a logical move.

2014 Tesla Model S in China

2014 Tesla Model S in China

And, she warned for emphasis:

While the comment by the [ministry] official is encouraging, policy making in China is very complex and one comment by one official does not a policy make.

Those who think such a ban will occur any time soon, or that it will be a complete ban that is vigorously enforced, need only study the implementation and enforcement of the emissions requirements for vehicles to see that these things take time and don't happen exactly as planned.

There are many regional and local interests that affect the implementation, not to mention the need for other central government bureaucracies to buy in to the policy.

To sum up, a ban of some kind is likely to move forward at some point.

There will be a huge amount of behinds-the-scene politicking, both by national and local government agencies and the businesses affected by the proposed rules, including the joint ventures half-owned by global automakers as well as China's native auto companies.

Chevrolet Volt arrives in China for use at World Expo 2010 Shanghai

Chevrolet Volt arrives in China for use at World Expo 2010 Shanghai

Enforcement may be selective, and it may vary nationally and regionally depending on which state governments own shares in which automakers (a common practice in China).

Perhaps the last word comes from an impassioned comment by Green Car Reports reader Ye Wang. (We've lightly edited his comment for clarity and style.)

I have said it before, and let me say it again: if China has the resolve to do things, things get done, and done fast! Plentiful examples in the past few decades: economic reform, high speed trains, space programs etc.

There are many reasons behind this green energy/transportation transformation. I think the main reasons are (a) global warming is real, it greatly destroys China's local environment after [the country has been the world's factory for three decades; (b) autocracy and common sense.

As one television commentator might say, "Watch this space."

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