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What's Driving The Electric Car Trend In China?


We turn now to China and a very different kind of change happening there. Sales of electric vehicles are booming. That's good for a country with a big pollution problem and, until recently, not many clean cars on the road. But they've quickly become a bright spot for China's economy, which has been sliding. Our colleague David Greene spoke with NPR's Shanghai correspondent, Frank Langfitt, to find out what's driving the trend.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Why are these sales of these kinds of cars just booming at the moment?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, it's really interesting to see what the government's been doing to make this happen. First of all, just to go to the numbers, 170,000 of these electric cars and plug-in hybrids through October - that's three times what sales were last year already. And in Shanghai, there are waitlists up to six months. And put this in some perspective. You don't want to overhype this. It's less than 1 percent of the overall market here. But China's now easily set to pass the U.S. as the biggest market for electrics and hybrids. And basically, the government has wanted to make this change. They are very concerned about the quality of air. They're concerned about congestion on the roads. And they also want to help Chinese electric carmakers.

GREENE: And all of this, it sounds like, has happened very, very quickly.

LANGFITT: It is a big, big change. I remember maybe three or four years ago, out having some beers with American auto execs. And I was looking for stories. And I asked about electric vehicles because it - you know, it would be a good story if they were taking off here. And they all said really the market was mostly dead. And the big problem, of course, is there's no infrastructure to charge these cars. What the government's been doing, though, is offering these really great discounts. And people are flocking to the cars right now in a way that they weren't before.

GREENE: What are some of the deals? I mean, are we thinking of the kinds of car advertisements that we see and hear in the U.S.?

LANGFITT: No, much, much better actually. Do you remember there was this electronics store called Crazy Eddie's...


LANGFITT: Back in the '70s and the '80s? And they had these wild commercials. And they would say, his prices are insane. The Communist Party is now the Crazy Eddie of electric vehicles. And I would have actually gotten one if I could. I don't have a Shanghai residency permit. So only, I think, mostly Chinese people can get one. But my assistant, Yang, just bought one.

GREENE: And Yang is with you, right, as I understand it?

LANGFITT: He is. He's sitting right next to me.

YANG ZHOU: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what kind of car did you buy? And how good a deal did you get?

ZHOU: I bought a hybrid model from a Chinese carmaker called BYD. And it stands for Build Your Dreams. I paid $24,000 for the car. And that's 30 percent off the sticker price. But I paid no purchase tax. And the best thing that comes with the car is a free Shanghai license plate, which is worth $13,000.

GREENE: What? Wait, a license plate costs $13,000?

ZHOU: Yes.

GREENE: And I complain about going to the DMV here. I mean, why does a license plate cost so much?

ZHOU: Because the license plate is incredibly valuable here. It allows me to drive the elevated highways during rush-hour. That's a way for the city government to control congestion by limiting the number of cars on the highways. Without the plate, I would have to crawl along the surface streets in Shanghai.

GREENE: Avoiding traffic is a big deal. I can understand now why you're - this means building your dreams, Yang. But let me ask you about the hard thing, which is the charging. Frank mentioned that it's really hard to charge these vehicles. I mean, I've visited Frank in Shanghai. I know there are skyscrapers and high-rises. Where exactly do you charge this thing?

ZHOU: I have to admit that charging the car is really a hassle. Every time I do it, I have to lower an extension cord from my apartment, which is on the 11th floor.

GREENE: That's a long extension cord, Yang.

ZHOU: Oh, yeah, it's very long. And it's really heavy (laughter). It takes seven hours to charge the car. And the car can drive 40 miles on one charge. But fortunately, I don't have to charge the car every day. But I do expect that the infrastructure for these kind of vehicles will get better over time because China's government has planned to build 12,000 charging stations by the year 2020.

GREENE: Well, Yang, thanks for telling us about your car purchase.

Hey, Frank, let me just ask you, I mean, it sounds like the government has, as you said, a lot of reasons to get people buying these new energy vehicles. I mean, are they going to be offering deals like this for the foreseeable future?

LANGFITT: Well, Shanghai's hinting that it'll keep doing it. But obviously, these kind of giveaways can't go on forever. And the hope is, just as in the United States, you know, you try to jumpstart demand by offering these great deals and create interest. And then hopefully, over time, people will start buying them, even after the discounts go away.

GREENE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt and also his news assistant, Yang Zhou, in Shanghai. Thank you both.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

ZHOU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Yang Zhou