It's hard to see where China's love affair with cars will lead

The automobile is not the main reason China's air is so bad. But 30 million cars, no matter how clean they run, will contribute to air pollution.
Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.

SHANGHAI -- If you hang around anyone connected with the Chinese auto industry for any length of time, you'll hear mind-boggling numbers about the industry's rosy future.

Dave Schoch, the no-nonsense president of Ford's Asia-Pacific region, told journalists this week that analysts say by 2020 the China market could surpass 30 million to 32 million, more than the United States and all of Europe combined. The Chinese have taken to the automobile like fish to water, and that love could transform the global industry -- and the entire planet for that matter.

But looking out my hotel room window here, I have to wonder just where China's love affair with the automobile and industrial progress will take us. There's a yellowish pall in the air making the spectacular skyscrapers of Shanghai's Pudong financial district mere shadowy silhouettes. Often they're not visible at all. New cars don't stay shiny for long. They're quickly covered in a grimy film.

The Shanghai air quality index as I write this is 121, according to a Web site that constantly monitors air quality in China's cities. A reading of 121 means the air is "unhealthy for sensitive groups," the Web site helpfully explains. I also can see that since I arrived here last Sunday, the air quality index in Shanghai maxed out at 212. That translates to "health warnings of emergency conditions. Everyone is likely to be affected."

So it's more than just jet lag that has had me feeling a little bleary-eyed and scratchy in the throat. But there's worse. If the air quality index goes above 300, the Web site says: "Health alert. Everyone may experience serious side effects." In 2010, the air quality index in Beijing soared past 500 -- meaning the air was virtually unbreathable.

The automobile is obviously not the main reason China's air is so bad. Hundreds of coal-fired powerplants belch smoke and particulates into the atmosphere daily. But 30 million cars, no matter how clean they run, will contribute to air pollution.

And air isn't the only pollution problem here. The water isn't so great either. Shortly before my trip, about 10,000 dead pigs turned up in the Huangpu River, something you think about when you see pork on the menu here, which is often.

When Ford CEO Alan Mulally visited China in March, he participated in the China Development Forum, a gathering of business and government leaders geared to discussing the country's numerous challenges.

Schoch accompanied his boss and was encouraged by what he heard.

"There was a lot of focus on the environment, which is music to our ears," says Schoch. "We want to be part of the solution."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at

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