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140 Million Cars, 16 Years, 2 Scenarios

Green Car Congress found an article in China Daily reporting predictions by Chinese officials that they expect to have 140 million cars on the road by 2020, a number larger than the present American car fleet. China currently operates 20 million cars.

Government statistics show that China produced a record four million autos in 2003, when the number of private cars grew by 80 percent thanks to the country's strong economic advance and growing middle class.

It is estimated that this year's production will top five million units, making China the world's third-largest auto manufacturer after the United States and Japan.


Market analysts cited by Xinhua News Agency said China was in the launch phase of another round of economic growth and the rapid development of the auto industry would be a major driving force.

This number -- 140 million -- will determine the shape of the next decade and a half. (Even if 140 million cars doesn't happen, it's important: since it's unlikely that China will suddenly veer away from private vehicle ownership, a world where it doesn't happen is one where something even bigger has caused a global shift.) As China accelerates the production and consumption of private vehicles, two broad scenarios suggest themselves:

If the Chinese continue to pursue gasoline or (petroleum) diesel-burning cars, they'll be able to take advantage of cheap auto technologies, a global market of vehicles to purchase from, and a global market to sell into. They'll also face rapidly-tightening oil supplies, instability in oil-producing regions, and competition with existing petroleum consumers over access, as well as dumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (along with other non-greenhouse but still very dangerous emissions). A shift to alternative energy cars will happen later, potentially putting China behind more forward-looking markets. This is a world of fast vehicle-ownership growth now, big problems by 2020.

If the Chinese opt instead to pursue alternative energy vehicles (biodiesel, hybrids, fuel cells) as quickly as possible, they'll be coming in at a point still high on the price curve for those technologies, a limited number of suppliers of both components and complete vehicles, and few markets outside of China ready for such vehicles (either because the existing infrastructure is heavily weighted towards petroleum cars, or because the economics of the more expensive alternative power vehicles don't work out). They'll also be a market leader when other parts of the world do start large-scale shifts to alt-energy cars (ironically, something which would take longer to happen due to reduced Chinese competition for oil), and will be farther along in their efforts to clean up the national environment. This is a world where vehicle supplies (and cost) don't meet consumer demand early on, but looks more profitable and clean by 2020.

So, which path will China take? Trouble now (but rewards later), or convenience now (but problems later)? The answer to this question is a key driver of how the next 16 years will unfold.

Comments (10)

I wonder what would happen if they drove very high tech, very light small conventional cars?

Zaid Hassan:

You mean like the Smart?

A couple of weeks ago we had a post discussing the potential Chinese energy timebomb.


In it I commented about the short-sightedness of companies like GM (and by extension the US government for not discouraging them) promoting the sales of SUVs in China making it the fastest growing segment in the Chinese automarket as this is likely to lead to future conflict over petroleum supplies.

I disagree with part of Jamais' post. Instead of promoting technologies which rely on fossil fuels (hybrids & biodiesel [due to the need for fertiliser]) & unproven technologies (hydrogen fuel cells) China should be building world-class public transportation and building electric cars.

The sorry state of America's public transportation system is not an example for China to emulate. China already has 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. If an individualistic transport option has to be provided let it be electric cars. This is a technology which works now and produces zero emissions (not including the production of the electricity). If China masses produces electric cars this will drive improvements in technology and set an example to the world. If this is done at the same time has a massive expansion in electricity generation from renewables this will provide a clean power source for the electric cars.

I'm very far from an expert, but while I agree that China should use this opportunity to build the world's best public transport infrastructure... What's the deal with "electric cars"? The little concession - "zero emissions (not including the production of the electricity)" - seems to hide a lot. Like, where does the electricity come from? Can anyone provide me with links to persuade me this isn't just an odd mask for the fact of dwindling fossil fuels?

For ages, as someone on the sidelines, I thought that the hydrogen thing was a "solution", until a friend pointed out that hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a source. It suddenly all seemed like a myopic passing-the-buck illusion. Out of curiosity, how are electric cars different?


The main reason for hydrogen is you can then use ocean based solar/wind/wave/tidal power stations spanning 100s of square kilometers to provide all the hydrogen you need and pipe it onto land while at the same time providing massive amounts of new habitat for marine life.

Or in the short run you can run a few hundred nuke plants and make tons of breeder reactors.

For reasons of cost and efficiency, I expect Smart-like cars to make up the bulk of early waves of petroleum-powered vehicles in China, although we'll see how much the Chinese buy into the "bigger is safer" meme that seems to rule in the US.

Alt-e, while I agree that a shift towards world-class public transit would be best, it seems pretty clear to me that China will have a huge demand for individual vehicles regardless of how extensive its public transit is. This is, in part, because building truly world-class public transit takes time, and the Chinese economy is growing faster than slow-built infrastructure could handle. The system of individual vehicles and rough roads (converted to highways) is more flexible, more responsive to changes in the economy.

Gyrus, the question of where the electricity comes from is a good one. It's possible that the power to run electric cars (or to make hydrogen for fuel cells) can come from clean sources -- wind, solar, wave, tide, hydro, geothermal, etc.. It's also possible that the power will come from dirty sources -- coal, natural gas, petroleum -- or from non-clean, non-greenhouse sources -- nuclear. While this means that electric is not inherently "always green," it does mean that it's possible for electric cars to be green if the rest of the system is -- something that petroleum-based vehicles can never say.

Hydrogen, fwiw, also has some biological sources which don't require extensive power inputs to generate.


Oil from the Persian Gulf bound for China (and everywhere else) moves at America's suffrance, and doubtlessly China is aware of this geostrategic fact.

China would do well to wrap lessened oil dependency in the language of national security. Nationalism is a powerful tool for legitimation in Chinese political life, and under this banner they would have a broad mandate.

If China is already becoming the "go-to" state in the region, a drive for clean energy would further emphasise this steady rise in China's prestige.


For what it is worth, th dorky, corbin sparow-esque Smart is not the only car Smart offers. The Coupe is pretty sweet looking. I want one.



Er, the Roadster is th one I really want. But the coupe is cool too,


What china is looking into is dme and various massaged hydrocarbon fuels they cook up and can make in china. If you look over at green car congress and look back a few weeks you will see all the plants they are building to produce various fuels.


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