Yang Jian

How a tragic train crash changed Beijing's EV policy

Yang Jian is managing editor of Automotive News China.Yang Jian is managing editor of Automotive News China.
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When two bullet trains crashed into each other on July 23 near the east China city of Wenzhou, few would have expected the disaster to change the course of Beijing's electric vehicle policy.

But that's exactly what has happened, and the impact has been profound. The accident and the problems that it revealed about China's railway system have led Beijing to launch a review of the safety implications of its EV strategy.

In recent years, the Chinese government has encouraged the quick adoption of cutting-edge technologies so that key industrial sectors could leapfrog global rivals.

The railway sector was the first to do so. Using technology purchased from global suppliers such as Siemens and Alstom, China built a rail network in its coastal provinces that allows trains to run up to 350 km per hour.

But the collision has undermined Beijing's confidence in its railway industry.

The accident left 40 people dead and 200 injured. An initial investigation concluded that the accident was caused by a defective signal system and the failure of railroad workers to detect it.

The accident is a hot topic among auto executives. Whenever I sit down with auto engineers or market analysts, they ask whether the outcry caused by the crash could affect the auto industry. It might.

Two years ago, the government concluded that domestic automakers could overtake their global competitors if they embraced EV technology.

So Beijing introduced generous sales subsidies for domestic plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Encouraged by the subsidies, a slew of Chinese automakers have rolled out these vehicles.

But safety problems have begun to appear. In April, an electric taxi developed by Zoyte Holding Group Co. caught fire in Hangzhou. Two months later, the local product quality inspection office issued a vaguely worded statement claiming the problem was not with the batteries, but with the way the batteries were arranged to form the battery pack.

In July, an electric bus caught fire in Shanghai; so far, no cause has been given for the incident.

Nobody was hurt in either fire, but the government fears motorists could be hurt or killed if such incidents recur.

Fortunately, the railway accident has taught Beijing a lesson. First, it lowered its expectations for domestic automakers to leapfrog foreign rivals by embracing EVs.

Next, it has begun to encourage Chinese automakers to produce conventional hybrids -- even if these vehicles are not as advanced as plug-ins.

At an industry forum in the north China port city of Tianjin, Su Bo, vice minister of Industry and Information Technology, said China will step up efforts to develop conventional hybrids.

At the same forum, Zhang Xiaoyu, president of the Society of Automotive Engineers of China, cited the railway accident to assert that consumers' lives should not be used to test EVs.

The central government has pledged to tighten its oversight of Chinese automakers' EV programs.

This is a good sign. In the wake of the railway accident, the government finally realizes that it is naive and dangerous to have blind faith in technology that promises to leapfrog the competition.

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