Inside Look At Electric Taxis Hitting China In Mass This Summer

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By Byron Meinerth

Over the past couple of years, the most exciting developments in EV production and sales have generally happened in North America and Europe, but the focus is undoubtedly turning to China. While Chinese EV start-ups may not be glamorous and the country’s incentives have not made huge inroads in spurring private consumption, private-public partnerships for EV fleet implementation are gaining traction. By this summer, China will be home to the top three largest electric taxi fleets in the world, specifically Shenzhen, Beijing, and Nanjing.

China is well known for its massive infrastructure projects that it develops in anticipation of international events, with the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 being two prominent examples. This summer, Nanjing will be hosting the Youth Olympics, and the city has been intensely remaking itself with new metro lines, new bike lanes, new electric buses, and new taxis. Since electric taxis are part of this expansion, last week I went to speak with Zhang Qi, who will be in charge of the 400 BYD e6s on Nanjing’s streets this summer.

Zhang Qi is an assistant manager at the Jiangnan Taxi Division (江南出租汽车分公司), which is a division of the Nanjing Transportation Exchange Company. In his current position, he works as a liaison between BYD, where he worked formerly, and Jiangnan Taxi. At the moment, his main focus has been overseeing a pilot program with a dozen electric taxis and making sure their company will be able to handle the upcoming expansion of more electric taxis.

Given that the focus of our conversation was electric taxis, we decided the best place to hold an interview would be in a BYD e6, with me driving. During our drive, I asked Mr. Zhang about issues that I thought would be most relevant to EV fleets in China. These included concerns that one would have about any taxi or EV, but their concerns and priorities were different than what I expected.

Driving range, which BYD rates at 300km of range, was more than the figure of 250km that the drivers gave, but the drivers whom I spoke with said this actually covered their average distances. Mr. Zhang said the greater challenge for them right now is installing enough charging stations in close range to where drivers are operating and making sure that drivers can charge quickly enough. Right now, a full charge takes about two hours. He said that construction has already started on large lots on the north, south, east and west sides of the city and will be completed by the beginning of the summer.

EV subsidies in China are smaller than years past, but taxi companies are in a good position to take advantage of EV benefits. Firstly, the majority of taxis in China run on LNG, and with natural gas spot prices recently hitting a record high, alternatives are looking even more appealing. Secondly, taxi companies have better to access to credit than individual consumers and can more effectively amortize the costs of operating a vehicle. Thirdly, the more one drives an EV, the faster one reaches the point at which savings kick in. Public transportation companies understand this quite well, since they’re running their vehicles daily.

When I asked Mr. Zhang to explain the primary motivation for moving to EVs, I was surprised to find out that climate change/CO2 ranked low. The Chinese are well aware that their electrical grids still primarily use coal; improving local air conditions, decreasing dependence on foreign oil and gas, and most importantly, fostering indigenous technological innovation were all more realistic and applicable goals, he said.

The e6 felt as comfortable as any other ICE taxi in Nanjing, and the trunk had enough room for my friend, Tom, to be able to sit inside. For the decidedly utilitarian purpose of being a taxi, the e6 will likely see further growth in China, particularly in urban areas with already high transportation costs.

About the Author: Byron Meinerth is a Boren Fellow based at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China, where he has largely spent his time analyzing the economics behind the energy and cleantech industries. He is on an unending hunt to find more mountain bike trails and beautiful swimming holes.

Images via Byron Meinerth

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