The Electric Car Revolution From An Asian Perspective
By Sam Smith
I had the pleasure of attending the “Next Generation EV Li-ion Battery” Conference held in Shanghai, China, from 1-4 September, 2009. The conference was ably organized and managed by Davide Bonomi and his staff from Singapore. The venue was the Hyatt on the Bund, a very modern hotel with exceptional service. This setting and agenda drew participants from all over the world, including a surprising number from Africa and Europe.
The program put together by Mr. Bonomi was designed to bring together both technical developers and representatives from the financial community to review the current status of Electric Vehicle (EV) and related Lithium Ion battery programs in Asia. Coming from the US I can honestly say I was impressed with both the number and quality of the programs underway. In the US we speculate on what is “coming”, in China there are several programs that are here now.
Although the agenda reads like a technology roadmap covering issues from basic material availability through spent battery disposal, there were also several speakers discussing investments. During the four days there was only one non-lithium battery presentation (Sodium Nickel Chloride for buses). As with most conferences of this type, the real value of attending comes from interaction with the other delegates. One message I got from many one on one and small group discussions, was that Asia is ahead of North America when it comes to scaling up production in the near term. Where we talk of maybe 5000 vehicles in 2010 or 2011, several Chinese manufacturers are beyond that goal.
Each of the manufacturers I spoke to wants to export to the US. This included both vehicle makers and battery developers. One difference I did note – when a Chinese OEM decides on which battery he will use in his vehicle – he buys the battery company. Here in the US the OEM’s in the past have treated battery manufacturers as suppliers only, hoping that multiple customers would lower unit costs. It is not clear that model will work for the initial launch of EVs in the US or anywhere else.
The other observation I would make concerning Asia is that there is no doubt that EVs will play a major role in future transportation. There were three major programs discussed at the forum and hints of several more that are currently under wraps. Given the lack of proven oil reserves available to China, it is logical that they would invest heavily in alternative fueled vehicles. The subsidies discussed from the Chinese government were impressive, even by US standards.
One subject notably lacking from the conference and discussion was the issue of product liability. I raised the question in several group discussions of how the potential exporters to the US intended to deal with the fact that the US has a history of class action lawsuits against automobile manufacturers. I stated that over time US manufacturers had built in a reality factor to deal with product liability lawsuits. The response was muted at best, with little to no experience in the US market, they are in for a real education.
It is clear that China is moving forward aggressively. They envision themselves as mass manufacturers and suppliers to the rest of the world. They recognize the primary limitation on public acceptance of EVs is the limited range issue. They are working hard to sell the concept that an initial range of 50 to 70 miles per charge is more than acceptable. When the majority of your domestic market is first time buyers, this concept is easier to sell. In the US we have grown to expect 200+ miles from a single fill-up. Hey Detroit, any plans to market overseas?
Sam Smith is the managing partner of EV World & Associates, LLC, a professional consulting group dedicated to assisting communities and organizations in the deployment of electric vehicles.
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