By Byron Meinerth, Chelsea Eakin, and John Hanrahan
What is it like to rent an EV in Beijing? Over the Labor Day holiday, we decided to find out.
For all the articles about Beijing’s air pollution problems and ambitious goals for electric vehicle adoption, we had trouble finding one that covered the actual experience of renting or owning an EV in China.
We had heard of the few Yika Car Rental (易卡租车) shops in the city, and wanted to see what the customer experience was like first-hand. We settled on the location at Beijing Institute of Technology (北京理工大学), because they answered the phone first when we called the hotline and immediately texted us their exact address. Taking the metro from central Beijing, it took us twenty-five minutes to arrive at the campus.
After entering the university gates, we immediately saw a woman driving one of the rental EVs and flagged her down just as her husband and young daughter were getting into the car. She worked for the Beijing city metro company and said the car was easy to lease and fine for her driving needs.
She was the first EV driver in action any of us had encountered in Beijing, and we were getting more and more excited to rent and drive one ourselves. We walked five minutes through the campus before arriving at the Yika office, which was buzzing with a group of seven students milling around waiting to rent a car for the holiday, plus a father and son pair. One girl in the student group told us it was her first time at the office, but that it was known for being convenient — and very cheap, she said with a smile.
The activity going on in the Yika office contrasted sharply with the total number of EVs actually being sold to private owners in China. Solely using total number of EVs sold as a metric, China’s electric vehicle development has been a failure. The Chinese government initially set a goal of 500,000 EV and HEV vehicles on the road by 2015, which they hoped to achieve by offering subsidies and decreased or eliminated license plate taxes. But, with only 17,600 vehicles sold in 2013, they are quite far from achieving this. This number, however, does not portray an accurate picture of what is happening here, because it doesn’t take into account the growth of indigenous innovation, as the Chinese refer to the local development of technology, and the increasing number of fleet vehicles, like the ones that Yika rents out.
Renting from Yika was incredibly straightforward, with the attendants — Mr. Zhang and Mr. Sun — processing our forms quickly and then taking us outside to thoroughly walk us through how to charge the car. They said we were the first foreigners to rent at that location. The whole process was easier than when we rented an ICE vehicle in Nanjing for the Spring Festival holiday. Moreover, the rental was relatively cheap at ¥159 for a 24-hour rental, only required a ¥2000 deposit (compared with ¥3000 when we rented the ICE vehicle) and came with a card that allowed us free charging at any of their three stations in Beijing. If we were students, the deposit would have only been ¥1000.
While learning how to charge our BAIC (Beijing Auto/北京汽车) E150, we met Zhang Shuai, a local Beijinger who was at the university’s station troubleshooting a problem he was having with his privately owned BYD E6 at their location. He had been by twice before and didn’t seem frustrated or upset — he just wanted to figure out the problem while he had a BYD representative and technician along with him. Most of his charging needs are taken care of with his private charging pole installed by BYD in his home parking garage, he said. Most of companies already selling EV models in China, including the much-discussed Tesla, will support customers to install a private charging pole at their home or office.
Zhang Shuai said he was the first of his friends to purchase an EV, and the model he bought had only been released two months earlier in March 2014. “In five years, everyone will be driving these,” he said matter-of-factly. “Maybe even sooner.”
Zhang Shuai’s comments are testament to how quickly changes can happen in China. Over the past decade, China has made huge transformations in its high- speed rail network and urban rapid transit systems. These continue to be priorities in its transportation development, but making the Chinese auto industry globally competitive, improving local air conditions, and reducing foreign oil dependence have all risen in importance. These last two are particularly relevant now, as severe air pollution is an increasingly common phenomenon, and given that China became the world’s largest oil importer this past September.
About two hours after arriving at the Yika office, we set out on a full charge of 130km in our grey sedan hatchback headed east along the city’s third ring road over to what we thought was a natural first destination: One of the city’s only McDonald’s drive-thru locations. With Beijing’s English language radio station Hit-FM 88.7 playing Rihanna in the background, we ordered three large meals and joked about how we really could have been anywhere in North America. The only thing uniquely Chinese about our experience so far was that the female voice on our GPS system powered by Baidu maps (China’s version of Google maps) was giving directions in Mandarin.
Our rental wafted with that familiar smell of greasy French fries as we headed toward Olympic National Park for a stroll around on what was a beautiful Beijing blue-sky day. By now, it was abundantly clear this whole experience had been and was going to continue to be almost unremarkably easy. We would not even accidentally produce our China version of the ‘stranded in my EV on the highway’ story. Mr. Zhang at the Yika office had told us that very few people ever reached the point that they lost power and had to be towed. Further questioning for specifics unfortunately didn’t result in any interesting stories.
The next morning we drove the car, now down to 65km after our previous day’s outing, to TusPark (Tsinghua University Science Park/ 清华科技园) to check out what was Beijing’s first public charging station, opened almost exactly a year ago in May 2013 outside the Google China headquarters. The staff on duty told us that on average 5-6 people rented cars each day, mostly employees of the companies located inside Tuspark.
This program seemed to mostly benefit customers who either worked or lived nearby, and people who had prior knowledge of it. This led us to believe that an expansion of rental sites and charging stations in appropriate locations, as well as increased marketing, would significantly increase the customer base. An increased number of charging stations would also allow customers to venture farther outside the city for different types of trips. Environmental and energy impacts are important, but increased adoption of these services will happen much faster if customers continue to feel that the product is hassle-free and readily accessible.
We ate brunch at Ricci Creative Eats inside TusPark while our car charged back up to 130km, and then we drove back to the Yika office at Beijing Institute of Technology just a few kilometers away.
Exactly 24 hours and 75.8km later, one of the attendants — Mr. Zhang — called to inquire if we planned to return the vehicle or continue renting. Cruising along the university road, we told him we were almost there. “No problem!” he replied.
We were optimistic about the potential for EV development in China before taking the E150 out, but after seeing just how easy the rental experience was and talking to a few enthusiastic drivers, we felt even more optimistic. Marketing the benefits to local air conditions is fine, but the real potential for growth is in expanding these EV rental services in the right locations (such as other universities, office parks, and airports) and marketing to potential customers the extent to which they can benefit from these cheap and convenient services.
It’s also important to remember that there is less of an ingrained car culture in China, which should make it much easier for customers to accept the idea of renting and using an EV. Chinese consumers have fewer preconceived ideas of what a car’s range should be and what it should feel like and sound like to drive. Moreover, with so many electric bicycles in China, almost nobody is unfamiliar with the idea of needing to charge one’s mode of transportation.
While driving on a packed highway in northern Beijing, we lamented that we weren’t in China to see the dominance of the bicycle and the subsequent transition to automobiles. With that said, it’s incredibly exciting to see what may turn out to be a massive change in the types of vehicles on the roads in China over the next five years. And maybe sooner.
The authors have a collective 15 years of experience living in different cities in China. Byron Meinerth is completing his Master’s in International Economics from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center; Chelsea Eakin manages client services for China Greentech in Beijing; John Hanrahan runs a travel and tour company.