China Carmakers Told to Seek Fuel Efficiency, Not Sales

After nurturing rapid expansion of its automotive industry for years, China appears ready to make a U-turn, shifting its emphasis from quantity to quality. From The New York Times:

Lu Shize, director of air pollution control at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, echoed Mr. Jiang, saying that “for the auto industry to develop, we should not try to sell more, but to improve the units sold.”

The government officials did not say how they would restrict growth. But growth has already slowed partly because of limits on the number of new cars that can be registered each month in Beijing, and mostly because government incentives expired at the start of this year. Those incentives were subsidies for rural buyers and a two-year reduction in the sales tax on new family vehicles ….

Any slowdown in growth is likely to shock the world’s automakers. Practically every American, European, Japanese and South Korean automaker is expanding in China, including General Motors, Ford Motor, Nissan Motor and PSA Peugeot Citroën. Chinese automakers are building assembly plants even faster ….

Xiang Dihai, the director of economic construction at the Finance Ministry, said that the government would soon issue new subsidies for the auto industry, but that they would be aimed at high technology vehicles with very low fuel consumption. China already has national and local subsidies of 123,000 renminbi, or $19,300, for each all-electric car, but virtually none are sold.

China’s less than frenziedly eager adoption of “green” cars to date was noted recently by The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, who pointed out that the 13,800,000 new passenger vehicles sold there last year included just one (1.0) Prius:

According to a report by the trade journal Ward’s, 35m new cars and lorries were sold worldwide last year – the second-biggest increase ever recorded. That is 95,500 extra vehicles being added to the global traffic jam every day.

Almost half of the new growth is in China, which recently overtook the US as the world’s biggest car market thanks to the sales of 13.8m new passenger vehicles. Despite the surge in sales, car ownership in China is still only half the global average.

But hopes that the country will also become a pioneer in the shift towards “clean car” technology have suffered a setback as the Chinese show little sign of interest in electric and hybrid vehicles despite ambitious government plans. Last year, Toyota managed to sell only one Prius – the world’s most commercially successful hybrid car – in the fastest-growing market. Sports utility vehicle sales, by contrast, are surging.

In its undaunted eagerness to promote home-grown electric vehicles, however, Beijing is taking aggressive measures to acquire relevant technologies:

For General Motors and the Obama administration, the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid represents the automotive future, the culmination of decades of high-tech research financed partly with federal dollars.

But as G.M. prepares to start selling them here by the end of this year, the Chinese government is putting heavy pressure on the company to share some of the car’s core technology.

The Chinese government is refusing to let the Volt qualify for subsidies totaling up to $19,300 a car unless G.M. agrees to transfer the engineering secrets for one of the Volt’s three main technologies to a joint venture in China with a Chinese automaker, G.M. officials said. Some international trade experts said China would risk violating World Trade Organization rules if it imposed that requirement.

The government’s demand is the latest example of China’s willingness to use the leverage of Western access to the vast Chinese market to extract concessions on advanced technologies. Policies to force technology transfers from non-Chinese companies have already helped this nation build big industries in areas like wind turbines, high-speed trains and water purification.

Electric vehicle technology was at the centre of accusations, later discredited, of industrial espionage by China against French carmaker Renault earlier this year.

Sources:

China Aims to Rein In Car Sales – NYTimes.com
Hybrid in a Trade Squeeze – NYTimes.com
China’s love affair with the car shuns green vehicles – guardian.co.uk