China's EV Future is Now

Why do most first-time electric vehicle (EV) buyers decide to make the switch to clean, reliable electric transportation? Are they trying to limit the amount of smog-forming pollutants they emit? Nope. Are they looking for the most energy-efficient vehicle available? No way. Are they searching for ways to reduce their carbon footprint? Not even close.

In fact, most people who buy their first electric vehicle are increasing their carbon footprint when they do so. That's because almost every electric vehicle sold in the world today is the first motorized vehicle the buyer has ever owned. Every day in China, thousands and thousands of electric bicycles and scooters are sold to people who are "upgrading" from bicycles or walking shoes.

I recently spent two weeks traveling all over China on business. The huge numbers of people traveling on various forms of two-wheeled electric vehicles were simply staggering. In Suzhou City, about fifty miles outside of Shanghai, electric bicycles and scooters outnumbered passenger automobiles by at least ten to one. At rush hour, the right lanes of the streets looked like rivers of electric vehicles. It was clear that when a worker in that area goes looking for a commuter vehicle, the default vehicle will be electric-powered. Buying something that is powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE) is outside the norm.

I saw a broad range of EV choices available and in use. The majority used lead-acid batteries, although use of lithium-ion batteries was on the rise. Most of the EVs had two wheels, although I also saw many electric tricycles used for hauling larger loads. Almost all of them used small motors mounted in the hub of one of the wheels. The smallest motors produced about 100 Watts (W) of power, but the majority of electric bicycles used motors in the 180-250W range. Scooters had somewhat larger motors, but none of them produced more than one horsepower (746W). Compare that to American automobiles producing at least 100 horsepower, and you can begin to see why electric bicycles are such efficient vehicles compared to other alternatives.

Many people rode small folding electric bicycles with 16" or 20" wheels. This puzzled me until I talked to one of the locals. He explained that the average family of three (remember the one child per family law) lived in an apartment with about 300 square feet of floor space. In the cities, virtually all the apartments are above the ground floor because the street level is reserved for commercial and industrial space. So, all these commuters need to be able to haul their vehicles up one to ten flights of stairs and stow them in very limited spaces. An electric folding bicycle fits this need perfectly.

Perhaps most common were vehicles that looked like electric mopeds, with a platform on which to rest one's feet and pedals which looked like they were added as an afterthought. These tended to be more powerful than the folding e-bikes, which probably made up for the difficulties encountered in overnight parking. Beyond these electric mopeds, there were lots of electric scooters that looked like modernized versions of the old Vespa design. Like the electric mopeds, many of scooters had vestigial pedal assemblies, and I noticed that many folks simply removed the pedals and the rest of the human power system. When I asked why people did this, someone explained that the law states that electric bicycles can be sold without licensing through department stores and any other retail outlet. Electric scooters, on the other hand, were illegal in many locations. To address this issue, companies build electric scooters with the bare minimum of human assist capabilities required to meet the legal definition of "electric bicycle." Since lots of people decided they would never pedal their vehicles, they simply removed the pedals, etc. in order to make their scooter what they really wanted in the first place.

I spent the last few days of my trip in Taiwan. I immediately noticed that, where people on the mainland rode electric vehicles, people in Taiwan rode small two-stroke scooters. When I asked why this was so, people confirmed my suspicions that Chinese people do not, in general buy e-bikes and e-scooters due to any sense of environmental altruism. No... they buy electric because a gas scooter costs five times as much as an e-bike does. It is as I and others have been saying for many years now; electric vehicles cost much less than ICE-powered vehicles once they are mass-produced.

That's right; simple economics have dictated China's transformation into an EV culture. Which begs one question, since price is the primary factor driving Chinese people to buy electric vehicles, what will happen when an average citizen of China has much more wealth? As the "first world" countries continue to pour huge amounts of cash into the Chinese economy, the balance of financial power will inevitably tip toward China. This is already visible to those watching the US Dollar tumble versus the Chinese Yuan. Soon, the average Chinese worker may be able to afford a car. Will they choose to abandon their hyper-efficient e-bikes in favor of passenger cars when they can? If they do, will those cars be powered by electricity or by fossil fuels? Anyone who cares about the world hopes that they will continue to choose the most efficient EVs possible, but anyone who studies human nature must have his/her doubts.

Please do not misinterpret the intent of this article. I am not saying we should look to China as an example of a "green" society. I saw with my own eyes and felt in my own lungs the terrible pollution problem China is producing with its massive coal-burning power plants, lack of environmental controls on industry, etc. No rational human being would argue that China's environmental policies are anything short of horrific. However, in the one single area of personal transportation, China is demonstrating an important point. Publicists and corporate lackeys everywhere want us to believe that our environmental problems are hard to solve, that they require decades of research and trillions of dollars just to begin. My trip to China proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these naysayers are wrong. In order to save our planet, all we need to do is act. The answers are as simple as conserving energy, building wind turbines, having fewer children and/or strapping an electric motor and a battery pack on a bicycle. If we can get beyond the forces of greed and laziness, the answers are right in front of our faces.
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