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The U.S. and China are cooperating on EV development. Can both sides come out winners?

September 10, 2010

An American friend of mine in China was always very frustrated when he entered into negotiations with a Chinese company. “They always have to come out on top,” he would complain. “There is no concept of win-win in China.”

Win-win—the Chinese word for it is “shuang1 ying2”, literally a pair of wins. For China, that usually implies that China comes out on top, however.  Nonetheless, the U.S. government is committed to working with China on electric vehicle development. Indeed, several cooperative research relationships were formed in the past few weeks. The key will be to ensure that we get as much out of the arrangement as China does.

At the end of August, the U.S. China Electric Vehicle and Battery Technology Workshop meeting took place at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, IL.

The meeting, between scientists from Argonne, the U.S. Department of Energy, and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, had three aims, said Jeff Chamberlain, leader of the energy storage initiative at Argonne National Laboratory.

They were:

  1. To compare notes and see if the U.S. and China are working on the same problems.
  2. To do the direct comparison of who is working on what, the results, and what the next step is.
  3. Map out where we might work together to help each other.


 “The objective is to move the technology forward in a way that is better for humanity and the planet,” said Chamberlain.

That’s very noble. But this is the real world. So Chamberlain added:  “The complicated aspect is to find a way in which we can collaborate in the science while recognizing that ultimately we will be competing.”  In other words, make it a shuang ying arrangement—to a point. I don’t know if that’s possible.

I was feeling kind of optimistic. My friends in business in China tell me the younger generation of Chinese is more attuned to international business norms. But then I read a story in the New York Times by Keith Bradsher about how China is heavily subsidizing the clean energy industry.

That violates its WTO agreement, and effectively shuts foreign companies out of the market. I realized that, at least in the government’s mind, shuang ying situations are not desirable.

But hey, let’s look for a bright side. Those subsidies may allow Chinese battery makers and others to advance technology in new ways. And hopefully the U.S. will have access to that through these cooperation agreements. But I’m not holding my breath.

A lot hangs, it seems to me, on how advanced China’s battery technology really is. And that is not known because China’s lithium ion batteries haven’t been made available to researchers in the U.S., who would run same kinds of tests on them that batteries in the U.S. are subjected to so we can really know what Chinese batteries can do.   

Until that happens, we won’t know how to interpret the Chinese test results. So one big benefit of the Argonne/China cooperation could be finding a way to understand what battery performance test results from China actually mean.  

“If we can work together in a way that helps us show the consumer that (electric) vehicles are safe, that advances the market,” said Chamberlain.

But that could take a while.  The American and Chinese scientists and engineers will need to find a way to “collaborate at a higher mission to change the world while protecting the tax payers’ interests,” said Chamberlain.

The taxpayers he is referring to are you and me. Our interests lie in not having our intellectual property stolen. So, the two sides will have to develop trust, and that will require time and effort.    

Some details about the Argonne meeting: It lasted three days. The three roundtables on day two accounted for the most of the meat (or the tofu in my case). The topics covered were technology; testing and performance evaluation; and vehicle performance. Chamberlain led the testing and performance evaluation session.

As it turns out—no big surprise here—China and the U.S. apply different standards when they test battery systems. One substantive result of the meeting was this agreement:  Each side will test the same battery system according to its own procedures. Each will provide the other side with the full test results.  

The Chinese were “a little frustrated” by the suggestion, says Chamberlain.  But, “we agreed to start with this experiment and publish together.” 

This approach will be very useful when Chinese EVs start being sold in the U.S. Which could happen by early next year, but I’m skeptical. (Surprise!)  In any case, we should at least see some BYD pure EVs here in Los Angeles by early 2011 in municipal fleets.

So long as a team in the U.S. tested a similar system, the performance information can be fairly evaluated and compared to other vehicles, hopefully before the BYD e6 even arrives.  

U.S.-China collaboration on clean vehicle develop is already official U.S. policy. During President Obama’s late November visit to China, the U.S. and China agreed to form the China-U.S. Clean Energy Research Center.

Saving the planet is one goal of the Center. But cold hard cash – hopefully in the pockets of U.S. companies – is also a goal.

Said Steven Chu, U.S. energy secretary: “The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center will help accelerate the development and deployment of clean vehicle and clean coal technologies here at home. This new partnership will also create new export opportunities for American companies (emphasis added), ensure the United States remains at the forefront of technology innovation, and help to reduce global carbon pollution.”

The first CERC research grant for clean vehicle development has already been awarded. The University of Michigan will lead a consortium of universities that will receive $25 million in federal funding to develop clean vehicle technologies. China will match that funding, and Chinese universities will be in the consortium. The U.S. funding will only be used by the U.S. companies, said Katinka Podmaniczky in the DOE’s office of public affairs.

Chamberlain said China is “dead serious” about investing in clean vehicle technology. Hopefully, that will help make the U.S. China collaboration a shuang ying one.  He also said he suspects the Chinese scientists are “just as paranoid as we are about sharing our secrets.” Wish I could be a fly on the wall in that lab.

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