Three years ago, China was set for a green auto revolution. But the country's electricity-powered car industry is in stasis.
When Warren Buffett in 2008 bought 10% of Chinese car and battery maker BYD (acronym stands for Build Your Dreams), many thought it was the dawning of the Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) age. That "golden era" may yet arrive. Eventually. But in the interim, that dream has mutated into something of a nightmare ensnared in interest group politics and lack of clear strategies.
Take BYD, whose current fate--because it is considered a private sector leader in the EV game--reflects conditions of the embryonic industry at large. A string of negative press has not helped its prospects. For example, Bloomberg reported in September that the Shenzhen-based company is planning to issue nearly $1 billion of bonds as it comes under pressure to pay back debt and as sales of its sedans dwindle. Then in late October, BusinessWeek followed with a piece that said BYD America has not only delayed opening its operations, it has also under-delivered in the number of jobs it claimed it will create in Los Angeles. (The subtext here: "see, Chinese investment in the US does not create 'green-collar' jobs!") Of course, BYD's troubles in the U.S. are linked to its sub-optimal performance in the domestic Chinese market.
Indeed, BYD has likely sold more of its fully electric and hybrid vehicles to government entities than to actual Chinese consumers. Even with limited consumer subsidies, the E6 all-electric model will still cost around 250,000 yuan, or nearly $40,000--sticker shock for the average Chinese consumer in the market for a car that gets you from point A to B. And that's all on top of percolating questions over the soundness of its battery technology.
Beyond BYD, the rest of the industry appears to remain more or less in stasis, with more talk than action. In the department of exaggerated/misleading headlines, this China Dailypiece trumpets "Electric taxis to triple in Beijing next year". But what does that actually mean?
Beijing will increase the number of its fleet of electric taxis from 50 to 150 by May 2012, said an official from Yanqing, a county in northwestern Beijing where an electric car pilot operation is underway.
The program in Yanqing is the biggest of its kind in North China, said Wu Shijiang, vice director of the transportation bureau of the county. The 50 electric taxis in operation were developed by Beiqi Foton Motor Co Ltd, the biggest commercial vehicle manufacturer in China in terms of production and sales.
So that's 150 taxis among how many tens of thousands in Beijing? And reading between the lines, this "county official" is clearly promoting local business interests to garner the attention of higher-level officials. In the absence of an official nod from the Beijing government, it is not entirely clear whether these taxis will even be used at all.
The state of EV development in China is hardly solely the fault of industry or technology. The central government shares a large part of the blame, as it has sent confusing and vacillating signals that confound industry and confuse the market. Despite what initially appeared to be fervent support for EVs, the top leadership has poured some cold water on the sector with recent comments. Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking at a national science and technology association conference in May, all but admitted that the leadership itself is unsure about the future direction of the EV industry and that issues ranging from strategy to core technology still need to be resolved.
Wen's comments explain why the ten-year plan on alternative energy vehicles development, which was intended to be released this year, has remained under wraps. That plan was supposed to be one major pillar of China's 21st century industrial policy through 2020 and considered a "strategic emerging industry". It appears that major disagreements at the top are driven by a generous helping of bureaucratic interest conflicts. According to the Economic Observer, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is pushing for the simultaneous development of fuel efficient cars and EVs; the Ministry of Science and Technology is obsessed with promoting EVs from a narrow technological standpoint; and the National Development and Reform Commission seems to support hybrids as a transitional phase toward singular focus on EVs.
Industry is complicit in complicating an already complex situation. Given Beijing's incessant touting of the trillions of investment that will flow to new strategic sectors over the next five years, including EVs, automakers and even major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) do not want to be denied a piece of the money pie. The auto industry already formed its own EV association, only to be followed by the formation of an SOE-dominated EV group that includes the likes of State Grid and the national oil companies. Why the oil companies? Because the "big two"--CNPC and Sinopec--control the vast majority of downstream gas stations, they believe there is profit to be made in retrofitting gas stations to EV charging stations. No one wants to cede ground in case the money spigot starts flowing RMBs.
The government, in essence, is stuck. Walking back on the entire EV program is impossible. But full-throttle ahead at this point seems unrealistic given that no one can decide on a clear path forward. Moreover, the government is most likely correct in assessing that blind pursuit of this program with little foresight can lead to irrational exuberance like what happened with the wind industry.
I have not been particularly bullish on the Chinese EV sector's near-term prospects, and it's unclear to me whether developing an auto industry on par with Japan, Germany, or the US even makes sense from China's macro development standpoint. (In this respect, I agree with Zhu Rongji's harsh assessment of creating a domestic auto industry.) Introducing EVs into the Beijing taxi fleet may help mitigate horrendous and unpredictable air pollution, but they won't alleviate the worsening traffic bottlenecks that now regularly choke the city. Even if EVs reduce air pollution, charging them could mean more coal usage--since China is primarily a coal-powered economy--that offset whatever carbon reduction benefits derived from less gasoline consumption in the transport sector. But wait, there's also "indigenous innovation", and wouldn't leading battery technology go a long way toward that goal? Paradoxical objectives, pulled along by powerful interests in different directions, explain much of China's story these days.
Whatever the outcome of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: what was once hailed as a potential EV revolution in China is turning out to be more akin to an incremental evolution.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
The newly discovered worlds are now the most promising targets in the search for life among the stars—and the race to take a closer look at them has begun.
The robot telescope settles on its target, a star that sits closer than all but a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of stellar systems that make up the Milky Way. Its mirror grabs light for 55 seconds, again and again. The robot telescope—called TRAPPIST—will observe the star for 245 hours across sixty-two nights, making 12,295 measurements. Eleven times, it will see the star dim, ever so slightly. This dip in luminosity, called a transit, has a straightforward astronomical explanation: It’s a planet passing in front of the star, blocking just a bit of its light. In this case, the transits tell us that 3 planets orbit the star.
“So what?” you might think.
Astronomers have been spotting planets around distant stars for years now, using the transit method, among others. Not a month goes by without a headline, touting the discovery of new “exoplanets.” But these planets are different, and not only because they’re near. Like the Earth these planets could potentially permit liquid water to persist on their surfaces—which is thought to be a key pre-condition for the emergence of life. Today, when their discovery is published in Nature, they will instantly become the most promising planets yet found in the search for life among the stars.
Don’t expect Hillary Clinton to stay above the fray in the general election—her campaign plans “sustained and brutal attacks” on Donald Trump.
As they look ahead to the general election, some commentators envision a campaign in which Donald Trump attacks viciously and Hillary Clinton makes a virtue of her refusal to stoop to his level. “I think Trump’s method will be to turn on the insult comedy against Hillary Clinton,” declared GOP consultant Mike Murphy earlier this week. “Her big judo move is playing the victim.” Vox’s Ezra Klein speculated earlier this year that “Trump sets up Clinton for a much softer and unifying message than she’d be able to get away with against a candidate like [Marco] Rubio.”
I doubt it will play out that way. Rope-a-dope isn’t Clinton’s style. When facing political threats, her pattern has been to strike first—and with great force.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
Even as the militant group loses ground in Iraq, many Sunnis say they have no hope for peace. One family’s story shows why.
Falah Sabar heard a knock at the door. It was just before midnight in western Baghdad last April and Falah was already in bed, so he sent his son Wissam to answer. Standing in the doorway was a tall young man in jeans who neither shook Wissam’s hand nor offered a greeting. “We don’t want you here,” he said. “Your family should be gone by noon tomorrow.” For weeks, Wissam, who was 23, had been expecting something like this, as he’d noticed a dark mood taking hold of the neighborhood. He went to get his father, but when they returned, the stranger was gone.
Falah is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair. At 48, he was the patriarch of a brood of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He sat down with Wissam to talk things through. They had been in Baghdad for just three months, but that was long enough for the abiding principle of refugee life to imprint itself on Falah’s psyche: Avoid trouble. When Wissam had managed to find a job at a construction firm, Falah had told him to be courteous, not to mix with strangers, and not to ask too many questions. If providence had granted them a new life in this unfamiliar city, it could snatch that life away just as easily.
The problem with Americans’ household budgets isn’t that people are too dumb to save, but that the system asks too much of them.
From taking out loans to pay for higher education to investing for retirement, Americans are shouldering enormous levels of personal financial responsibility—more so than ever before. At the same time, financial products have both proliferated and become much more complex. Americans now face an Alphabet (and Numbers) soup of saving and investment options (401(k)s, 529s) and a head spinning array of credit options (credit cards, mortgages, home-equity loans).
While Americans are not expected to manage their own legal cases or medical conditions, they are expected to manage their own finances. To be sure, the rise of the independent and empowered consumer rests on the belief that they have the requisite knowledge to be up to the task. But is it reasonable in such a system to expect people to succeed? Economists examining financial literacy would say no.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.