Shhhh. Can you hear that? It’s the quiet purr of the electric car invasion.
In 2016, China registered over 350 000 new electric vehicles (EV’s), compared to only 159 000 in the US during the same time period (over half were in ever green-friendly California).

While automotive analysts caution that China’s numbers could be inflated due to subsidy cheating, even the lower estimates remain higher than the US. According to Navigant Consulting, which puts China’s 2016 figure as low as 250 000, it expects new registrations will double by the end of this year.

“It was inevitable that China’s EV adoption was going to pass the US, mostly because we’re so resistant to EVs,” says Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. Lindland predicts many Chinese drivers’ first cars will be electric and younger generations may never own a gas-powered vehicle.
Electric cars are now an increasingly common sight in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. For some drivers there, electric cars are all they know.

”I don’t plan to buy a gasoline car, since I heard they are going to be banned for sale,” said Xiong Jianghuai, a lawyer based in Shanghai, who has bought two made by Chery, a Chinese automaker. He said he was delighted that the operating cost was less than one-fifth of the cost of buying gasoline, even if the initial purchase price was a little higher.

China is now aggressively championing the EV. The world’s second-largest economy wants 11% of all car sales to be electric by 2020. This should add up to nearly 3 million such vehicles sold annually. Sales of ‘New Energy Vehicles’, as they are called in China, accounted for about half of all plug-in electric vehicles sold globally last year (and many were manufactured by China’s own automakers).

That matters because where China goes, carmakers will follow: While the US car market has plateaued at around 17.5 million units sold annually, China sold more than 28 million vehicles last year and its market is growing quickly.

To further accelerate its transition to electric mobility, China is throwing massive amounts of money behind charging infrastructure and financial incentives. State news agency Xinhua said the government will deploy 100 000 public charging stations in 2017 alone, almost doubling the current total of 150 000. The US has only about 41 000 public charging outlets or plugs (at about 16 000 stations).

China also exempts electric cars from acquisition and excise taxes (worth $6 000 to $10 000 per car), while giving special lane access and other perks, reports the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile in the US, subsidies are waning. The Trump administration is reportedly considering cutting the EV tax break (worth up to $7,500 for buyers, although usually far less).

There are other factors to consider. While Tesla and Chevy race to release their mass-market EV’s – priced at around $35 000 – next year, China is already manufacturing its own far simpler versions for much less. It’s just not categorizing them as such. China’s immensely popular ‘low-speed electric vehicle’ (LSEV) uses a basic battery (usually lead-acid) and electric motor technologies. In other words, it’s an electric vehicle.

“The whole Shandong province (population 90 million) is riding LSEV’s,” notes Dennis Zuev, a mobility researcher at Lancaster University, “even in big cities.” The small, cheap vehicles (at a cost of about $5 000) can travel up to 40 miles/hour (70 km/hour) and don’t require a driver’s license or license plate to operate.

While China only includes approved EV brands in its tallies (and subsidy programme) at the moment, it may soon add LSEV’s to the count. The vehicles have seen explosive sales: 600 000 units were sold in 2015 and they are on track to top 2 million by 2020, reports Research in China.

Yet many outside China – including some members of President Trump’s administration – say China is using unfair government support to create national champions that could eclipse their rivals abroad.
China feels it has little choice in pressing forward. While it is true that electric vehicles fit neatly into China’s plan to become the world leader in sci-fi technology like artificial intelligence, the country also fears a dark future – one where its cities remain cloaked in smog and it is beholden to foreign countries to sell it the oil it needs.