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.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
Is oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere a sign of living beings, or something more mundane?
Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.
“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.
The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.
After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe—one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it—the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters, and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.