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Following China’s lead transforming transportation

Deborah Gordon's picture

In just fifteen years, two billion motor vehicles are projected to inhabit the world’s roads, doubling today’s population. Most of this growth will occur in Asia, with China leading the way. In order to fuel and accommodate these vehicles, large new energy and urban infrastructure investments will be made, locking in escalating greenhouse gas emissions and resource demands through the rest of the century.

The burning questions are: Will tomorrow’s autos in China and elsewhere be as carbon-laden and resource intensive as they are in the US today? And will the cities of India, China, and others follow the sprawled pattern of the US? Or will a new transportation reality emerge in China and throughout the developing world?

Put in these terms, it is imperative that China be a leader in transforming transportation – vehicles, fuels, and mobility. Today’s petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine technology, developed over 100 years ago, must be vastly improved and eventually replaced by 21st century innovations. And infrastructure and land use managers need to resist the forces of sprawl and invest in collective mobility services. Both of these goals are realistic propositions well worth pursuing.

China’s economy and environment will benefit tremendously from such innovation. And the rest of the globe will benefit as well from China’s newly emerging technological leadership on next-generation automotive batteries, electric two-wheeled bikes and motorcycles, bus-rapid transit, a new breed of rural vehicle that provides efficient freight transportation and enhances rural development, and cleaner, more efficient coal combustion and carbon capture technologies. Such transportation technology innovations, if pursued with the public interest in mind, would reduce oil use and carbon emissions in China and beyond.

Glimmerings of China’s leadership capabilities are appearing in the policymaking arena as well. A new plan would require China’s automakers to improve fuel economy to an estimated 42 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2015 – compared to US auto fuel economy standards that remained stagnant for 30 years and only now are poised under President Obama’s plan to increase to 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Tax-wise, China’s auto policies are also more forward thinking than the US. Chinese cars with smaller engines are given a big break, while SUVs with large engines are subject to very steep rates. Not so in the US where only cars less than 22.5 mpg are assessed gas guzzler taxes and inefficient SUVs are untouched, and efficient hybrid cars upwards of 40 mpg get no more favorable tax credits than 20-mpg hybrid SUVs.

China’s stiffer regulations and more rational taxes may position its auto industry for the long haul, including General Motors’s profitable subsidiary. While America’s cheap oil and lax standards encouraged GM to commercialize gas guzzlers, perhaps GM China will assert leadership in promoting energy-efficient, low-carbon cars for the Chinese and world market?

China is positioned to diverge from America’s gas-guzzling car-centric model and blaze a more sustainable transport path. Their success is by all means not guaranteed, but China’s motivations are many. They’d like to reduce reliance on oil imports, which now top 60 percent. They’d like to reduce sickening air pollution and mounting traffic congestion. They eventually will need to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. And they’d like to build a robust auto export market that meets global demands for future innovative products. For geopolitical, environmental, and economic reasons, China – along with many others – should be motivated to take bold steps on transportation.

Even if China assumes the lead, no nation can afford to stand idly by. America needs to accelerate transportation innovation at home, as do India, Russia, Brazil, Japan, the EU, and others. But pressure for change may be most intense in China. Thus, when it comes to transforming global mobility, China is a laboratory that others can learn from and China should assume leadership that others can follow.

The saying once attributed to GM may now hold for China, at least when it comes to transforming transportation. What’s good for China may be good for the world.