Could China help the world move beyond the combustion engine?

October 13 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2014   Rating: 9 Hot

What if we are being too cynical about China’s eco-future in the transportation sector?

Imagine a future in which China is the secret to moving the world’s auto fleet beyond liquid fuels and the combustion engine.

If they can master electron storage systems of advanced batteries, fuel cells and capacitors- they might surprise the world!

Warren Buffet thinks so. The Oracle of Omaha recently invested $233 into Chinese battery and electric vehicle maker BYD.

Now, we are hearing a similar message from other electrical storage system giants who are needed to transform our global auto fleet. A recent Economic Times article China seen as potential electric car hub describes a vision of Johnson Controls where China changes its course to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.

Buffet and Johnson Controls see China’s natural advantages:

-Fewer ‘legacy’ issues of existing infrastructure and embedded interests

-Top down policy control to accelerate changes around infrastructure

-Chinese leaders see cleantech as a growth industry, especially around energy storage and electric motor propulsion systems

-Small cars & scooters are the most likely candidates for electric propulsion systems. China (and India) are prime candidates

- A geopolitical desire to avoid issues of oil’s biggest problem. Lack of substitutability. Oil is the perfect fuel, but you can’t put coal or solar or nuclear into a liquid gas tank*. Electricity and hydrogen can be produced by any energy resource.

Of course, electric vehicles are not entirely ‘clean’ and certainly lead to suburban expansion and loss of rural lands. But the trade offs and consequences of doing nothing are hard to challenge. China’s urban areas would benefit from the removal of millions of uncontrolled polluting vehicles.

Even if electricity production came from coal, it is easier to control carbon emissions at a single point power plant rather than individual cars. And China’s industrial strength is powerful enough to change the direction of electric storage companies as well as automakers.

Related articles:

- GM plans to kill Combustion Engine
- Detroit to World, Nobody Killed the Electric Car
- Startup Better Place planning to build out Hawaii’s electric vehicle infrastructure

[Oil is the perfect fuel, but you can’t put coal or solar or nuclear into a liquid gas tank* -Technically you can convert coal to liquids; solar to hydrogen for combustion engines.]

Image credit: star5112 Flick CC License

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. OK, I admit that the PRC consists of an immense market in it’s own right and offers a logistics advantage in servicing other Asian markets, but let’s not equate that to some platform to world dominence, hmmm?

    It’s not like there aren’t already several options already available to anyone interested in making such a purchase or lifestyle change. As well, there are several well-documented negatives attached to involvement in the Chinese marketplace which deserve consideration in any investment or purchase decision process, too.

    All that said, the Chinese competition within their own marketplace will likely have more beneficial effect for the world as a whole than any non-Chinese markets can reasonably expect to influence. Even a casual glance at the history of human transportation makes obvious that scooters and bikes of any description are either a poverty stage of transportation development or a recreational niche market. Nothing intrinsicly wrong with any of that, but it should be said that only wealthy societies can afford to support an extensive secondary transportation market. I agree that there remains extensive opportunity for further growth of such markets (and the technology that serves those consumer’s interests), but the logistics costs for such products makes dispersed manufacture a more financially viable option.

    The Chinese may well spur further advancement of the basic science behind such technology, but they won’t do it alone as Mr. Buffett amply demonstrates. Good article, Garry.

    Posted by: Will   October 13, 2008
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  2. Re: Think we’re in agreement. There are definitely other electric bike /car makers out there. But my question is—what if we stopped seeing China as threat to extending oil-combustion engine legacy, and saw their manufacturing might as a catalyst for growing the global market. Something that I think they are capable of doing with the right policy, foreign direct investment (Buffet, Johnson, et al) and luck in the marketplace. So yes, it’s not just going to happen. I think Buffet and others see China as a manufacturing base for new electron storage systems. Just like Silicon Valley turned to SE Asia for launching low cost mfg of chips and memory. So agree that this is a story that holds some potential if the rest of the world gets involved..!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 14, 2008
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  3. The point I was trying to make is that the PRC as a marketplace isn’t some monolithic structure subject to central diktat that the country’s political history of central planning and control would seem to lead many (most?) outsiders to expect. Like any other market, the PRC is driven by it’s individual consumer’s choices as to direction and content. [All markets are subject to non-market-driven influences; the degree and intensity varies between them, but that’s all.] [And a separate argument I suggest.]

    Right now, the aforementioned market constituents seem to want ICE engines, which means an enormous expansion of the existing international petroleum market. We agree that there are other alternatives from which to select, but absent some basic science advancement achieving an overwhelming improvement over existing transportation options, an intensive effort will be needed to direct the individual purchaser into a different purchase choice from that already expressed. The PRC economy simply isn’t rich enough to support a more advanced technology secondary transportation market. Nor, apparently, is any other country for the moment, if recent financial reporting is at all accurate.

    We further agree that China represents enormous potential. It remains to be seen what option(s) that potential will select to express itself. Best of luck to Mr. Buffett (not to mention my own employer) in helping that selection process along.

    Posted by: Will   October 15, 2008
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