The popular image of modern China is of a rapidly industrialising nation, opening a new coal-fired power station every week and generally hammering the environment. And there’s a lot of truth in that impression.
I can’t find much evidence that China’s rulers have heavily bought into the idea that Co2 production is a one-way route to global meltdown, but they are increasingly keen on electrically-powered vehicles.
Indeed, according to the latest reports, China could end up being the world’s biggest market for battery-powered cars, perhaps putting 2.2 million such vehicles on the road in 2020.
The reason for China’s state enthusiasm for electric motivation - known as the ‘New Energy’ project - is as much to do with reducing urban pollution levels and the effects of increasing oil prices over the next decade. Many in both government and the auto industry now think that the increasing affluence of countries such as Indonesia will increase demand for oil and force prices permanently upwards.
No surprise, then, that China is also pushing ahead with a network of nuclear power stations. It currently has 13 and intends to push this up to a 110 stations in just seven years time. Local state power companies have also been instructed to install charging points.
Senior GM sources at the Shanghai show told me that they now think pure battery vehicles will be ideal for China, not just because they are pollution-free at street level, but because the typical middle class Chinese motorist drives in urban areas rather than making long journeys. It’s a usage pattern that would suit EVs perfectly.
In any case, the Chinese already know about re-charging. There are an incredible 200m battery-powered scooters on China’s roads, according to GM China boss Kevin Whale. GM says it’s also working with the Chinese state on providing ‘New Energy’ vehicles and co-ordinating efforts in areas such as local, GPS-based, anti-congestion infrastructure.
Nissan was heavily represented at Shanghai with the Leaf and last year’s neat Nissan Town Pod EV concept. It’s possible that if the Western markets fail to take to the limit range of the Leaf, it will find a more natural home in China’s Mega cities.
My favourite form of EV propulsion, the range-extender, was also much in evidence at Shanghai. The EV platform exhibited by domestic 4x4 manufacturer Great Wall was particularly interesting. It combines a small, three cylinder, engine, electric motors for both axles and a big 17kWh battery pack. Suzuki also showed a range-extender version of the Swift, charged by a three-cylinder engine.
Despite all these admirable fuel-saving efforts, the increase in global affluence will put huge pressure in oil supply. For my money, the next big shift in the West will be towards fuel security, which means extracting the extraordinary amount of clean-burning shale gas trapped in the rocks beneath our feet.
My ideal future car - a gas-powered range-extender - might not be such a fantasy.