Here’s why China probably won’t dominate the electric car market this year

In the wake of the surge in sales of electric vehicles (EVs) in China, it may seem that the Chinese market has already won the “EV race”, that is, the race to ensure global domination of this news. technology. But this judgment seems premature.

Most of the comments focus on China’s strengths in electric vehicle technology and production, or the size of the Chinese electric vehicle market. But that misses crucial factors that will affect how, and even if, Chinese electric vehicles are adopted around the world.

The question is not only whether China will dominate the global electric vehicle market, but also whether the electric vehicle can help China achieve the technological, economic and geopolitical power it seeks. In other words, even if China is successful in making electric vehicles, will electric vehicles be good for China?

The EV is a clear example of an emerging industrial revolution: one that combines low carbon and digital technology. Thus, the country that takes the lead in the production and use of electric vehicles is likely to be very competitive on the world stage.

Historical comparisons can help us understand what is at stake here. For example, consider the inseparability of the United States’ global boom in the 20th century and its simultaneous dominance of the traditional auto industry.

The American situation then and the Chinese situation today share many similarities. In both cases, major technological changes were occurring within each country alongside a rise in their geopolitical power. And just as the traditional car has become not only the primary means of transportation for citizens, but also a key symbol of social change in the 20th century, so will the electric vehicle in the 21st.

However, at the time of the mass adoption of the automobile, the United States enjoyed a unique position. As a liberal capitalist country, its rise to power was reassuring – or at least preferable to communism or fascism – for other powerful countries at the time, such as the United Kingdom.

The United States also illustrated and exported forms of cultural creativity – including jazz and blues music, new styles of fashion, and technicolor films – that were extremely appealing to people around the world.

The United States dominated the auto industry in the second half of the 20th century.
David Pirmann / Flickr, CC BY-SA

These forms of cultural capital have come under heavy pressure to commercialize the “American dream” of personal car ownership – one of the reasons there are now around 1.4 billion cars on Earth. It also helped that the car belonged to an entirely new industrial sector at that time with no established competition.

None of these factors apply today to China regarding EV. Most significant is the almost complete absence – and, if anything, worsening – of China’s political acceptability and cultural attractiveness in foreign auto markets, especially those in wealthy regions like Europe. .

China’s eventual dominance in the electric vehicle sector would require Chinese electric vehicles to compete successfully in these established markets. But these are already populated by some of the most advanced companies in the world, including Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen, as well as consumers with high expectations.

With auto markets booming in developing countries like India, it’s possible that Chinese electric vehicles will succeed even without making much headway in Western markets – but China’s delicate political status will make it difficult there. down too.

The future of EVs

This problem is even more important for electric vehicles than for cars, due to the profound difference between the two. The car is a relatively simple machine. It’s basically a wheeled engine, with various additions to make it more attractive – and comfortable – to its driver and passengers. The EV, by comparison, is a whole new technology that is part of a much larger and unpredictable transition in urban mobility.

Simply replacing cars with electric vehicles will not solve congestion or transport inequalities in society. And electric vehicles will create their own difficult environmental problems, such as the pollution created by the production and recycling of electric vehicle batteries. Moreover, electric vehicles themselves still have a long way to go, making political and cultural doubts about China’s role in their creation more prominent.

An aerial view of intersecting highways
An interchange in Shanghai, China, where many electric vehicles are manufactured.
Denys Nevozhai / Wikimedia

For example, cars have been widely associated with individual freedom: one of the main reasons for their worldwide popularity. Their digitalization threatens to make the EV a vehicle for unprecedented levels of surveillance and control of people’s mobility.

In an experiment in 2015, two hackers were able to take control of a journalist’s car and steer his wheel from a distance. Situations like these could well generate fears about authoritarian control and reduced privacy, further diminishing the attractiveness of Chinese electric vehicles abroad.

Finally, the automobile emerged with the discovery of a seemingly limitless source of energy – petroleum – and when concern for the effect of its waste was largely absent.

Today, on the other hand, one of the main drivers of the electric vehicle transition is its sustainability, which means that the environmental impact of the mass adoption of electric vehicles will be closely scrutinized by customers and citizens of the world. whole world. Chinese companies hoping to enter overseas markets appear ill-prepared to deal with such a controversy.

At present, therefore, the most likely scenario does not appear to be unparalleled Chinese leadership in electric vehicles. China will be a major player in electric vehicles, if only given the size of its domestic market and the level of government support it provides to its electric vehicle industry. Yet with this increasingly come increased competition with Western companies starting to take EV seriously – and who may be in a better position to deal with the complex social and political hurdles ahead for this new technology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *