Chinese carmakers are seizing upon government policies aimed at encouraging the development of electric and other alternative energy cars.
While domestic production of hybrid vehicles is mostly a matter of maturing technology and growing consumer awareness, the dream of a Beijing or Shanghai traffic jam producing zero pollutants remains distant.
To get there requires overcoming the challenges involved in building a workable electric vehicle. These extend not just to creating the cars themselves and convincing consumers to buy them, but also to building the infrastructure necessary to support them.
"From the long-term perspective, it surely will be the ultimate goal of some manufacturers, [but] a very long time from now," said Wang Chao, a spokesman for Chery, China’s largest independent automaker.
The main difficulty is battery capacity. A battery needs to be large enough to last a reasonable distance between charges, and must recharge quickly enough that long drives or forgetful drivers don’t require overnight pit-stops. The special requirements of electric vehicles, analysts say, could lead to a change in automotive business models.
One way around long recharge times is simply to replace the battery.
Klaus Paur, director of automotive research at TNS China, said that this is the thinking behind a system designed by Better Place, an American startup firm focused on providing infrastructure for electric cars.
"The idea is that you subscribe to the infrastructure … you get your car and drive around, and you rent the batteries," Paur said. Chery’s Wang noted that a battery replacement system is being considered by the company.
While the Better Place system does not exist in China, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, a cooperative venture between the French and Japanese automakers that has worked with Better Place, in April signed an agreement with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to develop an electric vehicle pilot project in 13 Chinese cities.
The alliance would provide "a blueprint for a battery-charging network" and cars to China in early 2011. In addition, the alliance signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wuhan municipal government as a pilot city for zero emissions vehicles.