Wary Chinese motorists ignore EVs

Yang Jian is managing editor of Automotive News China.Yang Jian is managing editor of Automotive News China.
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With a generous array of incentives, China's government expected to turn the country into the world's biggest market for electrified vehicles.

It hasn't happened, and the goal is starting to look like "Mission: Impossible".

Complete sales figures for EVs and plug-in hybrids are unavailable. But data from various sources help us to gauge the situation.

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Wan Gang, China's minister of science and technology, disclosed at a recent industry forum that 12,347 electric cars and buses were on China's city streets as of August.

Some of those EVs surely belonged to automaker test fleets. So how many EVs have been sold?

Wan didn't say. But in 2011, 5,655 EVs were sold in China, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. And in the first nine months of last year, only 3,009 units were delivered.

That's a pittance, given China's ambitious goals. The government had targeted cumulative nationwide sales of 500,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids by 2015. By 2020, cumulative sales are supposed to reach 5 million units.

To meet those goals, Beijing introduced subsidies in 2010 ranging up to 60,000 yuan (7,300 euros) for EVs and 50,000 yuan for plug-in hybrids in five major cities. Municipal governments in the test markets added local incentives.

But nearly all of China's EV and plug-in hybrid customers today are government-owned taxi and bus fleets in cities where Chinese automakers are headquartered.

For instance, BYD Co. has sold almost all of its e6 electric cars and F3DM plug-in hybrids to the public transport company in BYD's hometown of Shenzhen.

Wang Binggang, a leading government adviser, told Chinese media last month that the country's EV sales targets will be nothing but empty talk unless private buyers enter the market.

But persuading private customers to buy such vehicles is anything but easy. Customers are scared away by the lack of charging stations and the vehicles' high prices.

Take BYD's e6 compact electric car. After deducting 120,000 yuan in subsidies, the e6 still costs 180,000 yuan ($28,900). That's three times as much as a similar gasoline model offered by BYD.

With its mix of incentives and regulations, Beijing had hoped that China's domestic automakers would match or surpass the best EV technology offered by foreign automakers.

But with China's private buyers staying on the sidelines, Beijing's chance to create the world's largest market for EVs and plug-in hybrids is fading fast.

You can reach Yang Jian at yangjian@autonewschina.com.

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