Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Automotive Technology in China

As I reported in my last column, I recently spent 17 days with my family in China celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary.

We stayed primarily in the tourist spots, including Beijing, Shanghai, Yangtze river, Three Gorges Dam, terracotta warriors, Li River and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we did not have time to see many of the manufacturing or other primarily rural areas that I'm sure would have provided even more insights.

It was a great trip and, as always, allows me insights into how other people and countries do things. What I often like seeing is how other people's ways of doing things often take a very different approach and can be quite eye opening.

My expectation of China's large cities was that most of the traffic was bicycles, mopeds and other slow, clunky traffic. Not so. Most of the cities we visited were clogged with automobiles large and small. Despite Beijing's broad streets — sometimes four lanes each direction — it looked like any major American or European city from a traffic perspective.

Shanghai and Hong Kong were much denser than Beijing, with more high-rises, looking more like New York City, but cleaner and much newer.

What did surprise me was the number of electric scooters (mopeds) we saw. Given my non-scientific sampling, it wouldn't surprise me if half of the scooters were electric. Unlike the noisy, stinky small-engined mopeds we're used to, these electric ones were silent.

My guess is that the range of an electric scooter was 10 or so miles, but for most people, that's sufficient to get them where they need and back on a single charge.

Looking at the street traffic, there were quite a few identifiable brands of automobiles, including Toyota, Nissan, Kia, BMW, Mercedes, and more. What surprised me was the number of Buicks that were driving around. General Motors has a strong presence — including manufacturing — in China, and Buick is a brand that has a remarkable presence.

Of course, there were brands I was totally unfamiliar with ... some of Chinese origin and others from India, Korea and elsewhere. Some odd varieties, including the requisite three-wheeled variety that we see so few of in North America.

What did surprise me was the number of truly ancient vehicles still on the road. Here's a link to a video of a Chinese truck that was common there: http://tinyurl.com/ChineseTruck. It would clearly not pass any road or safety standards we have in the United States, but certainly looks easy to maintain and is probably quite reliable.

Unfortunately, I didn't see any "next big thing" from an automotive perspective. It could be that some of the vehicles that we saw were fully electric or hybrids, but they didn't stand out visually or with any badging that would indicate they're anything other than gasoline or diesel-powered.

My take-away from a transportation perspective is that, at least in the Chinese cities, they have certainly advanced from the stories and pictures I recall, and I can understand why their need for oil, in particular for gasoline and diesel fuel, is continuing to drive global demand.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 7 September 2011.

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