North Star/Neoplan Electric Bus, Beijing, China
Dr. Sun with EVWorld.Com editor in chief Bill Moore at North Star bus manufacturing plant on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing.

Beijing Diary - Part 3

Day Three in Beijing includes visit to North Star bus plant.

By Bill Moore

"When I was growing up in Beijing the buses were even more crowded than they are now," Eddie Lai observed as we made our way west on Chang'an Avenue.

We were still east of the Forbidden City and the traffic this morning was moving in fits and starts along the eight-lane thoroughfare.

It was on this broad street that long military processions of tanks and missiles and tens of thousands of troops once passed in review of Chairman Mao. Today the chairman's portrait overlooks the passing phalanx of European luxury motor cars driven by prosperous Chinese capitalists. The little Red Book has been replaced by the little Red Taxi.

Not that China has gotten out of the military business. The dragon still has it's teeth.

The modern Mandarins who now occupy one of the western compounds of the ancient Forbidden City still command some 2.3 million men under arms, but they are little in evidence in the capital city. [Despite the fact that China's military is 800,000-men stronger than the US, its military budget for 2002 is only five percent that of the Pentagon's budget. It ranks 8th among the nations in military spending behind Saudi Arabia and India.

Instead, you see lots of what I was told are private security guards who march to and from their commercial guard posts in crisp platoons of gangly youth in loose-fitting camouflage fatigues. Call it the privatization of the People's Army.

Further down Chang'an Avenue we would pass the Chinese premier's house guarded by just two young men. The same applied to the Chinese Defense Ministry a mile or so further west.

No doubt there are troops stationed around the city. I would pass just such a base on the southwest edge of Beijing later this day. But it appears the Chinese have gone to great lengths to keep its military presence at a low profile inside the capital.

But at the moment I wasn't thinking about Chinese soldiers. My attention was focused on the somber young woman and dower old man who sat staring out the over-crowded bus at me. I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I looked into their expressionless eyes. Here I was riding along in the comfort of a new Chinese-made VW Passat while they were crowded like so many sardines in their yellow and green bus. I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like in the 70's and 80's when my friend Eddie was growing up.

One can appreciate the desire of so many of these people to someday own their own cars, though for most that will remain an unfulfilled dream, at least in Beijing where traffic has already stretched the capacity of the city's modern ring road system well beyond its designed limits.

Even though it was well after rush hour, this eight lane road was still bumper-to-bumper heading into the heart of the city. We were headed towards the Ministry of Science and Technology on the west side of town to pick up Mr. Wang, Continental Battery's plant manager. From there we would stop just off the Third Ring Road to pick up Dr. Sun Liqing from the Beijing Technical Institute. The four of us would then drive outside Beijing to the North Star bus plant about 15km southwest of the capital.

As we passed the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City, I wondered to myself how much of the tyrannical system he bequeathed to the intelligent and industrious people of China still persists like some malicious computer virus. I suspect much of it still lingers just below the thin veneer of modern China.

Still there is no question China is a country in rapid transition as it increasingly becomes the product assembler-manufacturer-of-choice in the world. A quick inventory of the equipment on my desktop tells me that pretty much everything I own and use to publish EV World is made in Asia with the exception of my Lucent Technologies office phone made in Mexico. Only my Gentner Microtel telephone mixer box is US-made as is my heavy oak desk. Yesterday we had driven past Nokia's assembly plant where this Finnish company manufactures 70 million cellular telephones a year. For many millions of Chinese times are very good, far more so then it once was under the old communist paradigm.

Yet looming like a shadow over the new China is its enormous population, much of it still living in extreme poverty, a situation Chinese and off-shore manufacturers often cruelly exploit. I am told there are factories in China where workers are kept in feudal slavery working 14 hour days, seven days a week to produce products for chains like Walmart and Target, while earning as little as 23 cents an hour, according to the National Labor Committee. The living wage in China is 87 cents an hour. Sadly they count themselves the lucky ones because they have jobs.

Officially some 4.6 million urban Chinese are registered as unemployed. This number is expected to quadruple in just four years to more than 20 million. Unofficially though the number may be much higher than that, especially if you count the unemployed in the rural areas.

So China's leaders are faced with the staggering challenge of how to modernize the country, keep it economically competitive and still employ as many people as is economically feasible. I was about to see one rather unconventional way they are tackling the problem.

With Mr. Wang, the plant manager safely tucked into the backseat of the VW Passat, we headed west and then south on the Third Ring Road to pick up Professor Sun. The professor is part of the joint effort between Beijing Institute of Technology, North Star Bus and Continental Battery to develop an all-electric bus that will serve as the prototype for similar buses that will first serve the needs of athletes, officials and visitors to the 2008 Summer Games. Then it's descendents will be placed in commercial service around the city.

I had seen video of the bus we were going to visit yesterday in the conference room of Continental Battery. It was a really just a bare steel skeleton, but it moved under its own electric power. I was advised that while the bus was now finished, its 36 packs of lithium ion batteries had been removed and taken to a government testing lab, which we would try to see later in the afternoon.

We picked up Dr. Sun and drove southwest into the outskirts of Beijing where I got my first good look at the less prosperous side of the capital. Here the poverty was in painful contrast to the affluence on the east side of the city. The roads were in ill-repair and the ancient brick homes were weary with age. Yet the people seemed adequately fed and clothed. In the creek bottom to my right were what I took to be private vegetable gardens.

Further on we passed the entrance to an Army base where I got a glimpse of young recruits in gray camouflage and what looked to be a number of heavy tanks. My guess is this was a mechanized army unit.

We turned down yet another rutted road and slipped carefully past an impromptu open air farmer's market where local gardeners sold or bartered their produce.

Just a half mile or so down this lane we came to what appeared to be the entrance to yet other military compound. Young men in green uniforms guarded entrances on both sides of the road. Here we waited to see if we would be given permission to enter the facility. A quick call on the every-present cell phone told us that our permission papers to enter the base were at the front gate. This apparently was a back gate.

Following Mr. Wang and Dr. Sun's directions, Eddie Lai turned the car around and drove it a short distance, turning off on a single lane track that appeared to follow the brick walled perimeter of the base. To be perfectly honest I was feeling a bit apprehensive, as we wound our way down this cobblestone lane and between more houses crumbling with age. After about a mile or so, we found the front gate and stopped. A young soldier glowered at us. Mr. Wang returned with the pass, which he slipped onto the dash, and we drove inside the base.

Curiously, in the road ahead of us was a modern, European-style office building whose sign indicated it belonged to Germany's Neoplan bus company and China's North Star. It was completely out of character with what seemed to be century-old brick machine shops, lined up in rows. They might have once been used to fabricated iron bridges or steam locomotives.

I glanced inside the open ends of the buildings, but saw little in their darkened interiors. Whatever had gone on here, had long since lost its relevance. Here and there we passed workmen on bicycles.

We drove through the gate we had first attempted to enter, crossed the road and drove inside the second gate. In the distance was a large factory building. One my right, under plastic tarpaulins sat twenty or more armored personal carriers. They looked brand new, so clearly they worked on more than just civilian buses here. I asked for maybe the third time, if I should leave my camera in the car, but was assured it would be okay to take pictures inside the assembly plant.

My hosts explained that the Neoplan/North Star factory had been built to make buses, but from the size of the facility and the heavy steel supports high overhead, supports strong enough for cranes to lift large, heavy loads, I suspect the plant could have several uses. I imagined cranes lifting tank turrets onto waiting chassis. Clearly though, this facility was newer than the old brick machine shops we'd passed.

We parked the Passat next to some newly completed buses and following Dr. Sun, went inside the plant.

The place was cavernous. Yet it hummed with activity as buses moved from one assembly point to the next. We were at the end of the production line where the buses where being finished. Further away I could see the steel skeletons of more buses being welded together. I was told that this facility turns out about 300 buses a year, roughly one every working day.

Dr. Sun lead us off to the left where the electric bus sat next to several custom buses either waiting to be delivered to their new owners or maybe used by North Star as demonstrators. I wasn't quite sure which it was.

The bus we had come to see was royal blue. Given its strong European heritage, it resembles the inter-city tour buses one sees all over Europe. It sported comfortable seats and huge passenger windows. The only hint that this was an electric bus was the modified driver's instrument panel which featured digital readouts of battery performance numbers.

Lifting the rear engine compartment door revealed a huge DC motor, which drafted a smaller compressor for operating the brakes and an assortment of other ancillary pieces of equipment. Missing was the big, bulky Germany diesel that normally powers a vehicle like this.

My hosts showed me where the 36 battery packs would normally go. They are divided into four sections, two on each side of the bus, each of these mounted fore and aft between the front and rear axles. The four units are made up of nine individual packs, each with 12 cells in them. Each cell has an optimal voltage of 3.6 volts.

Mr. Wang drew a diagram for me that showed that the system has 107 cells, instead of 108. It apparently has to do with the 3.6 volts produced by each cell. 107 cells give the bus the 384 volts its needs.

I was told this configuration will give the bus a 250 km range with 50 passengers on board. If this proves out in real world performance, it will be a powerful argument for lithium ion batteries, which have something like three times the energy density of NiMH, pound for pound.

I would have loved to have seen the bus in operation, but the only batteries on board where a handful of lead acid used to testing the vehicle's electronic systems. We took our obligatory group photos and walked out the huge factory door.

Moments later we were motoring back through the base/factory and out the front gate, stopping only briefly to turn in our pass. A tall, thin young guard eyed us somberly for a moment, adjusted the shoulder strap on his AK-47 and returned to his job of staring into empty space. We probably represented the only excitement he'd have that day.

Why does it always seem to take less time on the return trip then it does going out? It seemed only a minute or so and we were back on the expressway leading back into Beijing. As we crossed the dry riverbed of some unnamed river, Eddie tried to explain something about the Japanese and the bridge adjacent to us, but I didn't really follow him. My mind was elsewhere trying to make sense of all I'd seen.

Soon we were back in Beijing traffic and trying to wind our way -- this time using side streets -- back to the Ministry of Science and Technology where we'd drop off Mr. Wang. Dr. Sun would ride with us to Beijing Institute of Technology where they planned to have lunch, but not before giving me a chance to spend a little time with another westerner.

Dr. Antoni Szumanowski holds a Ph.D. and Doctor of Science at Warsaw University of Technology. He is a recognized expert in electric and hybrid-electric vehicle systems. Periodically, he comes to China to lecture on these topics. He was lecturing at B.I.T. for a couple weeks and wanted to meet me.

After climbing what seemed to be unending flights of stairs at B.I.T.'s automotive technology laboratories -- apparently there are no elevators, which helps explain why the Chinese seem to be so fit - we reached a bright, sunlit office in which Dr. Szumanowski had comfortably ensconced himself along with Dr. Zhang Chengning, a B.I.T. professor and two graduate students, one of them a very petite and pretty young woman who also happened to be extremely shy.

I was settled in a thick comfortable sofa with Dr. Szumanowski and served a glass of hot tea. Fortunately the good doctor's English was excellent and we got along famously. He showed me a small paperback book of maybe 170-200 pages printed on cheap paper. He explained that it was the Chinese version of one of his books on hybrid-electric vehicle systems modeling. It was his first book to be printed in Chinese, but that wasn't why he was showing it to me. Ever the pedagogue, he was trying to convey a lesson to me.

"In Europe, we printed and sold maybe five hundred copies," he noted seriously. "Here we have sold more than ten thousand copies. Actually considerably more than that," he added with reflection.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Because these people are serious about this technology," he replied, leaning in closer for emphasis. He pointed out that China is the only place he knows where there are post-graduate programs in EV technology with literally thousands of students enrolled.

I was and still am impressed by his comment. China may be starting from the back of the pack, but they seem determined to be as good at mastering EV technology as they are ping pong, gymnastics, ice dancing, bus building or making cell phones.

He nodded with a knowing gesture -- one westerner to another -- that suggested to me to watch them carefully. They are a people determined to be a global economic, technological and consequently, political force in the 21st Century.

To Part Four

Times Article Viewed: 6235
Published: 12-Oct-2002


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