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China not embracing electric cars

Just as in the U.S., the Chinese government finds it’s tough to sell consumers on electric vehicles.
KIA Ray EV

(Photo: Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images)
Story Highlights

Electric cars remain expensive, finding places to charge batteries difficult
China pushing EVs as way to reduce air pollution
Automakers still hoping for breakthroughs in China

SHANGHAI — Fears that China will catapult past the U.S. in the race to put electric vehicles on the road have fizzled.

Despite choking pollution in big Chinese cities, the government faces the same obstacles as the U.S. in the push for electric vehicles: They’re still expensive, many consumers don’t understand them and many drivers don’t have anywhere to charge the batteries.

Although China has offered tax incentives on electric vehicles in an effort to reduce the massive air pollution problem, there are few of the vehicles on the roads.

“I think everyone would say it hasn’t really taken root yet,” GM China President Bob Socia said last month near the Shanghai auto show. “Objectives are worthy, but progress is slow.”

Automakers will have to persuade Chinese consumers to give electric vehicles a try. Experts once said that Chinese consumers would embrace electric vehicles because four out of five car buyers are purchasing a vehicle for the first time. They’ve never had an experience with internal combustion engine cars, so they won’t know what they’re missing, the thinking goes.

That thinking was wrong.

Similarly, progress is slow in the U.S. The federal government offers tax credits of up to $7,500 for the purchase of an electric vehicle or semi-electric car, such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. But most people are still buying conventional vehicles.

That means the door is still open for leaders to emerge in the electric vehicle space, as researchers pursue next-generation technologies amid a growing consensus that the current technology of lithium-ion batteries won’t get much better or cheaper.

In 2012, the Chinese bought 12,791 hybrid and electric vehicles, according to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

But the real number of electric vehicles sold in China last year was actually about 3,000, when factoring out hybrids and vehicles that aren’t roadworthy, such as golf carts, said Namrita Chow, a Shanghai-based analyst for IHS Automotive.

“EVs haven’t taken off for a number of reasons,” she said. “Consumers are not comfortable with electric vehicles.”
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