It was a couple years ago, when China overtook the U.S. as the largest new car market in the world, that it started to become clear to me the U.S. wouldn’t have the same influence in the development of this next generation of automobiles as we did in the first.
As witnessed by the incredible amount of diversity of green car tech at the Beijing Auto Show this year, China has suddenly become the place to watch for emerging car trends — and it’s getting a larger share of the limelight to boot.
The world of the vehicle is changing drastically. At this point I’m positive that we’ll look back 30 years from now and see this period of time as just as transformational as the 30 years after the automobile was first invented. And, as we start this change, one thing is becoming clear: the U.S., as a society, is likely to play a relatively small part in how it unfolds.
We didn’t invent the automobile here in the U.S., but we did take the concept of personal mobility and make it infinitely more affordable and functional — and ingrained it more fully into our everyday lives than any other society. This wholehearted adoption was one of the keys to our huge success over the last half century or so, but it is also one of the major reasons we’re kind of stuck working within the system we’ve created for ourselves.
For everything from how we fund roads, to how we distribute energy, to what industries we subsidize, to what factors our economic markets are geared towards, to how we get to work, to how we value our mass transit and train systems, we are finding that adopting next generation plug-in cars is exceedingly difficult. Fitting the new system into an old framework is like trying to stuff your aged self into that pair of hotpants you wore in college (and kept deep in your closet for god-knows-what reason): It may work, but it looks horrible.
In many ways, you can draw an analogy to Europe. For centuries they developed their train/tram systems. When the car came along their cities were already so crowded that the car just never fit into their society perfectly. Their streets and infrastructure weren’t designed with the car in mind. Which is why, although cars are obviously very popular in Europe, they’ve just never developed the U.S.’s fascination with them and they still have a healthy public transit system.
In the U.S., when the car finally came into its own, we were just starting to develop our infrastructure. It was a clear and perfect union. We dumped loads of public money into that relationship and haven’t looked back. But we also aren’t looking forward much either. Although we had trains, we never needed to make them work really well. We just paved a road wherever a train might have gone. I’m not blaming us for this, just stating facts. It was the easiest path of least resistance at the time.
So when you look at China, although they’ve been a society for a LOT longer than the U.S., it’s only in the last decade they have started to come into their own on the economic world stage. Their cities are growing at a rather astounding and frightening pace (they’re building million-plus person cities almost overnight), their population is incredibly young (Fully 50% of the population is under 44), and they are only now starting to think about the infrastructure needed to make the whole country a truly modern one. The Chinese government has a relatively clean slate to work with as they plan and are using that to their advantage by working to integrate electric cars and plug-in hybrids now. Clearly the Chinese book is yet to be written and there are many questions in their ability to get it done, but, as the magic 8 ball might say, “all signs point to yes.”
A recent survey shows that nearly 5-6 times more Chinese residents would consider buying an electric car or plug-in hybrid than in the U.S., Germany, Japan, and the UK. Think about that; 60% of Chinese people already are considering buying an electric car. Additionally, 82% of Chinese respondents say they take the environment into consideration when buying a vehicle. That, in-and-of-itself, is astounding to me. Here in the U.S. less than 1 in 4 (depending on who you ask) would consider buying an electric car right now — although 78% think plug-in AND hybrid vehicles are the way of the future… at some point.
Look, before you get all hot and bothered, I’m not saying that U.S. companies won’t play a key role in developing the technology of the future. I’m just saying that, in my opinion, the average U.S. consumer won’t have much influence on what technology the next generation of vehicles uses. Certainly any capitalist transportation venture worth its weight in snot will take advantage of the fact that the market for plug-in vehicles in China is so hot — including every major U.S. auto manufacturer still left standing.
So, what do you think? Will the U.S. play a lead in the future of transportation, or are we doomed to argue amongst ourselves about the issues until we get passed up by China?
Image Credit: Jakob Montrasio’s Flickr Photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.