Energy & Resources

No more foreign coaches

Cautionary voice warns on China’s electric bus boom

"Charge her up, please..."

Predictions involving buses should always be approached with caution, if the experience of one of Britain’s least successful prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain, is anything to go by.

In April 1940, Chamberlain quipped that Herr Hitler had “missed the bus”. A few weeks later the German Fuhrer’s army was overrunning France, Norway and Holland. Chamberlain looked pretty foolish.

Southern Weekly is also wary about bold predictions relating to buses. Hence a recent sceptical article pouring a little cold water on forecasts for China’s growing fleet of eco-friendly electric-powered buses.

WiC first looked at these electric buses in issue 2, when 17 Chinese cities had orders in place. According to Chinabuses.com there are 30 domestic manufacturers churning them out, attracted by central government targets to have 10,000 on the nation’s streets by next year. With Chinese cities buying up to 20,000 conventional buses per month, this looks like an industry where busmakers can hope to enjoy economies of scale.

Manufacturers like Foton seem particularly well placed – having received an order for 800 eco-buses from Beijing’s public transport authority. Beijing’s deputy mayor Gou Zhongwen forecasts they will reduce pollution discharges by 15% and lead to energy savings of 20%.

So what’s Southern Weekly so cautious about? It’s main beef seems to be that most of the manufacturers are relying on “half-breed” vehicles, with the key technology being imported from abroad rather than developed in China. In this sense, the manufacturers are primarily assemblers.

China, the Weekly says, should be seizing this opportunity to develop its own technologies rather than relying on foreign ones.

Currently, the government subsidies going into the purchase of these eco-buses are mostly benefitting foreign companies, it believes.

The newspaper reports that Foton’s buses rely on a hybrid diesel-electric power system developed by American multinational Eaton. The gearboxes are also imported from abroad.

“The purchase of high priced core parts and components from outside has become the shortcut for all bus companies to quickly introduce new energy buses,” it remarks.

The research director at a domestic car firm admits that too little is being spent on R&D. He even views the current mania for electric buses as “a gimmick to please the country’s leadership.”

After nine years of government-led investment, the country has failed to make significant breakthroughs in pioneering the core technologies in the hybrid bus arena.

That is the view of Ouyang Minggao, a professor at Tsinghua University and also head of the government’s 863 Project, which is charged with researching new technologies. “At present, China still lacks competitiveness in new energy buses’ core technology,” he says.

But it is still early days. In the first six months of the year, new energy buses constituted just 2% of all vehicle sales in China. And with domestic firms such as BYD making strides in battery technology there are reasonable prospects that local firms can catch up in the R&D race. But Southern Weekly’s clarion call is probably a welcome one: as Intel’s Andy Grove famously said, only the paranoid survive, after all.


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