Andy Frank talks China EV policy with me. I see wasted resources but a nice way to test new technologies.
I visited Efficient Drivetrains Inc. www.efficientdrivetrains.com last week for the first time. EDI, as it is usually known, produces a plug-in hybrid electric drivetrain and a continuously variable transmission. I met EDI founder Andy Frank, the father of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, a few years ago at a conference in San Francisco. I now know EDI CEO Joerg Ferchau and others at the small company, as well, and do some work for EDI. But this was my first time to visit. EDI is located in an office park in Dixon, CA, which is between Davis and San Francisco. Its current space is small—just a few offices and a larger garage-like area. But it recently rented more space in the business park, tripling its footprint there. The growth is business-driven, fortunately, and some of the business is in China. EDI opened an office in Wuxi, east of Shanghai, a few months ago. The China deal that is the farthest along is an agreement to produce a PHEV bus optimized for both city and high-speed highway travel. The Chinese company is bus producer Anhui Ankai Automobile Co. http://www.chinabuses.com/english/manufacturer/ankai.htm based in central China’s Anhui province. China is the initial target, but export is also possible Joerg told me. Ankai has already exported buses to the U.K. and the U.S.
Andy and Joerg visit China frequently. Both meet with a variety of company and government sorts and have great insights into the direction China’s EV policy is taking. Joerg was out of the office, but I had a great talk with Andy about the China market.
It seems to me that some resources are going to be wasted by the rather scattered approach China is taking to EV development. On the other hand, some good technologies may emerge as well. And Beijing is determined to develop China’s EV industry, it is clear.
Beijing i.e. China’s central government, recently released its new energy and fuel efficient vehicle development plan. http://www.greencarcongress.com/2012/07/china-20120709.html The plan calls for China to have 500,000 PHEVs and/or BEVs on the road by 2015. Since Chinese consumers aren’t going to be buying EVs in anything close to those numbers in the next few years, the government is brainstorming for ways that goal can be reached. One idea it is considering, said Frank, is short distance (duan tu) vehicles. I immediately said: “Oh, Shandong province will like that because it has so many low-speed EV producers.” No, said Andy, these are not low-speed EVs. They are short distance EVs. Of course the details of this potential strategy aren’t worked out. But as Andy explained it, these would meet regular vehicle standards but their batteries would not have much range. I guess they would be city vehicles. Range is the biggest issue with the current crop of batteries. Sure, one can find batteries that can go hundreds of kilometers on one charge. But those batteries cost a lot. Producing a BEV with a limited range would lower the cost and potentially make it more commercially viable.
I have said a number of times that municipal fleets are the way Beijing will meet its EV goals. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-07/30/content_15628934.htm That, in my estimation, is why so many municipal governments are now investing in companies with electric drivetrain and battery technology. An executive at a foreign automaker in China that works with the Chinese government on electrification concurred that fleets are the likely solution. He listed garbage trucks, street sweeping, postal and package delivery, and taxi and bus fleets as good candidates for electrification. Some of those types vehicles – postal and package delivery and street sweeping for example – are also good candidates for the short-distance EV strategy.
Once upon a time, like 2009, Beijing thought China could become the BEV capital of the world quickly. Now it is more interested in PHEVs in the near term. Beijing thinks BEV is the ultimate, “but the technology is not here,” Frank told me. “They feel the problem now, and the problem is to displace gas.” That’s for sure. A recent report by consultancy McKinsey says oil imports in China are likely to double by 2020, when it could amount to 16% of total world oil demand. Andy is a true-believer in PHEVs, so he naturally thinks that the PHEV is better than a pure electric vehicle in any case. As fpr the short-distance EVs, I’m not sure how the mix between BEVs and PHEVs might play out. After all, if range isn’t a big issue then BEVs might be more appealing. I’m sure Beijing doesn’t currently know what the mix will be either. It will make up that part of the policy up as it goes. Are short-distance EVs the way to go? I think it would be an enormous waste of resources. The minute the government hints that it is interested in a short-distance EV tons of companies will jump into that sea. I can imagine many, many of the low-speed vehicle makers in Shandong going down that road. Many already are, judging from what I saw at EVS25 in Shenzhen in 2010. The majority would make a product that would be poor quality and find little market. But some good technology might emerge. I guess that is a chance the central government wants to take.
Andy also helped me see that the pressure on local governments to electrify their fleets, while on the one hand a big waste of resources since economies of scale aren’t possible, is also a great way to test different technologies. Think about it. For a recent story for Automotive News, companies I talked to included PowerGenix www.powergenix.com , which has its own Nickel-Zinc battery chemistry and is working in part with a local government in central China’s Anhui province; Protean Electric www.proteanelectric.com , which has in-wheel electrification and is working with the local government in the east China city of Liyang; and battery maker Boston-Power www.boston-power.com , which has Chinese investment and is also building a plant in Liyang. (Both B-P and Protean work with venture capitalist Sonny Wu, managing director of GSR Ventures. www.gsrventures.com Clearly Sonny has some guanxi in Liyang).
What China is doing, said Andy, is getting local governments to test different technologies. “After four or five years, they can see what works best,” he said. Seems brilliant to me, though it will involve waste of local government resources. A problem with that strategy is that gathering good data will be tough if the central government doesn’t step in. Beijing had better get busy developing a data collection strategy.