No electric cars . . . . but something else instead!

So much is now written about electric car development and particularly the push in China for this mode of transport that I now have expectations of seeing something on the street, but the reality is different.

Such is the story in Shanghai, where I am attending the Annual Council Meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). This is a remarkable city, with a Maglev train that travels at 431 km/hour to and from the airport (sadly only at 300 km/hour in off-peak times when I happened to use it), vast (and somewhat empty) highways, a first rate underground transit system and an almost brand new financial centre, built around the third tallest building in the world. But no electric cars (that I saw).

Nevertheless, electricity is making inroads into the personal transport system. Electric motorbikes are everywhere and appear to be in the majority when compared to conventional gasoline motor bikes. A simpler and presumably cheaper version of this is the electric assisted pedal bike. These are all eerily silent vehicles, gliding along the road at modest speed. The only warning the pedestrian gets is the horn or, somewhat too late, the sound of rubber on bitumen rolling along.

An extensive report on the scale of the industry and the technology behind these vehicles has been produced by Argonne National Laboratory in the United States. Key findings of the 2009 report are as follows:

  • In 2006, 20 million E-bikes were made in China. At present, China has 50 million battery-operated bicycles on the road, of which a very small percentage operate on Li-ion batteries. The rest of them use lead acid batteries. In China, about 2,500 companies produce electric two- or three-wheeled vehicles. All of the large companies producing electric vehicles (EVs) have E-bike models that are powered by Li-ion batteries, but the performance-to-price ratio for those E-bikes is still not compatible with that for E-bikes powered by lead acid batteries.
  • There are 10,000 enterprises, both large and small, involved in the Chinese national production of electric bikes. Small and mid-sized companies accounted for 35% of total national bike production in 2007. Most of the E-bikes use lead acid batteries, yet in 2007, the entire industrial production of Li-ion batteries for electric bicycles had surpassed 100,000 ETWs. In 2007, China exported about 395,000 electric bicycles; exports to Japan, the United States, and the European Union (EU) numbered 203,300, which was 58% of production.
  • As an example, Shenzhen BAK Battery Co., Ltd. (BAK), produces 600,000 cells per day for cell phones, 150,000 cells (18650 type) per day for notebooks, and 20,000 polymer Li-ion battery cells per day for electric vehicles and electric bikes. Li-ion power batteries for E-bikes are still in the research stage; these batteries use four 2.5-A•h cells in parallel and then 11 cells in series to make a 10-A•h, 36-V battery pack. The range is 45–50 km per charge. BAK has patents for protective boards for the Li-ion battery pack. The positive material is LiFePO4.

What is visibly missing is the conventional bicycle (but there are some), once the primary mode of transport in China. I assume that as Chinese city centres have deurbanized to make way for office and industrial developments and urbanization has moved further out, the distances involved for daily transit of the population have defeated cyclists.

Meanwhile, all that is seemingly missing in Shanghai is appearing in London, of all places. With inner-London boroughs reurbanizing, bicycles are back in force, recently further supported by the city bikes provided by London Transport. Electric cars are just starting to appear and recharging infrastructure can be found in a few inner city streets and in some shopping mall carparks. I recently even rode on a trial electric bus service from Paddington Station to Bank, provided as an extension of the Heathrow Express rail service.