Electricity is what it's all about at the Shanghai auto show this year, and the pursuit of the "electric car" (dian che) is all anyone wants to talk about – fossil fuels are not in the mix at all. Petrol is totally unfashionable at the top show in the world's largest car market, and is only allowed as a term within a press release about a hybrid car.
China wants carmakers to make new energy vehicles account for 8 per cent of total car fleets by 2018, although it is going to have to fight against huge demand for SUVs – first-quarter SUV sales rose 21 per cent on-year to 2.4 million. So what you have is a car show that is deeply environmentalist on the one hand, and gas-guzzling SUV seller on the other.
More than 1,000 carmakers are in Shanghai for the show, trying to get their own piece of the electric car market. Two years ago, the event attracted 928,000 guests and it’s likely to do even better this year when it opens to the general public from Friday until April 28th.
The Shanghai show is exhibiting 1,400 cars, 113 of them making their world debut and 159 of them “green” vehicles, 96 from Chinese companies and 63 from foreign firms.
The motor show alternates between Shanghai and Beijing every year, but the event always feels bigger in the financial capital, in part because it's more of a petrolhead city, with the Grand Prix now established here and the presence of so many carmakers, like General Motors and Volkswagen.
It doesn’t take a degree in science to see why China needs such aggressive goals on electric cars. The air in the country’s big cities is foul and the Communist leadership is promoting “new energy vehicles”, which include electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars, as a way of dealing with smog, and also giving China an edge in what is an emerging technology.
Czech carmaker Skoda has unveiled its first electric concept car in Shanghai, and it believes that the electric car will be a pillar of its development strategy.
"This is the electrified idea of independent mobility. This vision shows where we are going when it comes to electric mobility, when it comes to the future as of 2020 and onwards. This is a vision of the brand of where we want to go," Skoda spokesman Jakub Sulc told The Irish Times on the company's large stand at the show.
The Vision E has a maximum output of 225 kilowatts and can run at a top speed of 180 km/h, with a mileage of 500km. It also features level three autonomous driving, which means it can drive itself on the motorway and park itself without human intervention. The plan is to introduce Skoda’s first purely electric car onto the market in 2020.
Skoda chief executive Bernhard Maier has said the company will launch five entirely electric cars in various segments of the market before 2025.
China has been Skoda’s largest market worldwide, with sales of 317,000 cars last year, and it plans to double sales by 2020 with its expanding range of cars.
“The interior is becoming more and more important, because you are going to be spending your time in the car in a different way. You will be working or enjoying a movie. Our designers say the car is going to be built around the interior and the interior is the most important thing,” said Sulc.
Pure electric car
“This was made for the Shanghai motor show. In China the SUV segment is growing and carmakers are very focused on this,” he added.
Europe’s biggest carmaker Volkswagen got into the swing of things when it announced the launch its first pure electric car in China next year, as Beijing steps up pressure on the industry to promote alternatives to gasoline.
It’s a challenge, because even though the government subsidises the new energy vehicles, electric cars struggle to make an impact, mostly because of their limited range. Local carmakers sell plug-in battery models, but their range is usually no more than 120 to 150 kilometres, which is insufficient for most motorists.
Toyota announced this week that it will begin road testing its fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, in China in October.
VW, which like the car show seems to alternate with GM for the title of China's best-selling carmaker, expects annual sales of at least 400,000 new energy vehicles by 2020 and 1.5 million by 2025.
VW is launching a new model to be produced under a new brand name with a local partner, state-owned Jianghuai Automotive Corp.
"This will be a new co-operation on pure battery cars," said Jochem Heizmann, head of VW's China unit. "Our challenging target is to come, already next year in 2018, to the market with the first car."
The luxury market was always the headline-grabber at the Shanghai car show, and the luxury cars are there, but this year hybrids are the main event.
GM brought in martial arts movie star Jackie Chan, clad in a stunning white jumpsuit, for the global launch of the Buick Velite 5 plug-in hybrid. Buick is GM's main brand in China, where GM operates in a joint venture with state-owned Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp.
GM plans to manufacture and sell a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its Chevrolet Volt in China.
VW unit Audi is one of the biggest brands in China, having gotten in here in the 1980s and establishing the Passat and Jetta models early on.
Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler reckons that China's premium car market will grow by half over the next decade to around three million cars per year, on the back of economic growth in the world's second-largest economy, increasing wealth and the "entrepreneurial development" of private firms.
“It doesn’t matter if it comes in two years or three years. But at least from a 10-year perspective we see growth,” Stadler told a morning news briefing at the show.
In January, Audi committed to selling more electric cars in China, which means deepening ties with its local partner China FAW Group.
German carmakers are doing really well in China, with their brands accounting for around 70 per cent of luxury vehicle sales, although that is expected to decline as more brands enter the luxury car and sport utility vehicle (SUV) segments.
Volvo, the Swedish automaker which is now Chinese-owned, has announced plans to produce a pure electric car in China for sale worldwide starting in 2019.
And the premium market grows apace. Hubertus Troska, head of China operations for Mercedes-Benz, believes China's premium market will reach the three million mark within five years.