Could China be the world's biggest testing track for alternative energy cars? In the latest move by a multinational to launch vehicles that ain't ridin' dirty in the world's fastest growing auto market, the General has announced plans to begin selling hybrid cars in China starting in 2008, just in time for the Beijing Olympics. GM will build hybrid cars in collaboration with its local partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, the US carmaker's chief executive Rick Wagoner revealed on Monday. With a gusto to be expected for the head of the straightest shooter in the "wild, wild west" of the automobile industry (sales were up 36% this year), Wagoner rolled up in GM's newly "drivable" hydrogen Sequel (above, with the mayor of Shanghai), its sleek fuel-cell mini-van-sedan that he calls "the most sophisticated product, technologically advanced product, I think we've ever made in the history of GM." While GM has reduced the cost of making the Sequel by 12 times over the last five years, it says it still needs to reduce that by a further seven times in order to make the car viable. It should start appearing on the street ... maybe by 2020?
Incidentally, that's the earliest that Chinese automakers now anticipate exporting their cheap cars to much of the world, a delay largely due to domestic carmakers' relatively lagging technology--and the poor emissions and safety standards that follow. While the central government will begin enforcing higher emissions standards next year, the country's rapidly growing car population will still be operating on an environmental level (Euro 4) beneath that of cars in the west...But look at things in relative terms, and you see a consumer culture that, while seemingly zealous, is still conservative when it comes to consumption and driving. Sure, roads are being paved like wildfire for hordes of new drivers, but much of the country still lacks a widespread infrastructure for fueling; and much of the driving population still counts its car trips by the cost of filling a gastank. The government, fearful of oil shortages (hello, Africa), and mindful of the impact of traffic auto pollution, is doing the same. Hence, reckons automakers like GM: hybrids.
The company follows Toyota, which released the Prius in China this year, as well as VW (it will release its first hybrid in China), Ford and Chinese carmaker Geely, which all plan on 2008 models. (This isn't to mention all the research being done here on hydrogen cars.)
There's no doubt about it: China's taking the highway. GM -- and the world -- hopes it will soon be taking the high road too.