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China's Opportunity: Green Mobility vs. Electric Cars

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President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao this week launched a joint effort to “reduce oil dependency, cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote economic growth” through accelerated deployment of electric vehicles — an effort that needn’t exist in opposition to “green mobility efforts.” Nor should it overplay the role of personal vehicles as a solution to the challenges of fast-growing urban centers, warns energy and transportation scholar Lee Schipper in the Dot Earth blog today.

A strong push for plug-in cars in the world’s two largest auto markets might sound like just what the planet ordered. “Virtually all of the emerging markets have economies that are booming,” venture capitalist Steve Westly said at the Cleantech Open awards event in San Francisco on Tuesday, and it’s oil that’s driving them. But getting off oil and onto electricity isn’t the only goal, Schipper tells Dot Earth. “Energy is only a means to an end. What are the ends, urban access and mobility, or cars for a small minority?”

The international effort announced by Obama and Jintao this week, called the U.S.-China Electric Vehicle Initiative, already has several tasks on its to-do list, including: develop joint standards, share data from electric vehicle demo projects in more than a dozen cities in both countries and identify issues related to the manufacture of the vehicles, among other things.

We’ve written before about China’s role on the road to an affordable EV, and the potential for sales in the region to help electric car makers achieve economies of scale. But such a scenario includes a catch: Costs have to come down (with the savings passed on to customers) before electric cars can get anywhere close to becoming mainstream in China.

On the charging side, while China is expected to lead the electric car-charging boom (accounting for nearly half of the more than 5 million charge point installations anticipated worldwide by 2015, according to Pike Research), cities there present a challenge, ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read told BNET recently:

“Cars in Shanghai are crammed into garages all over town…Parking is at a real premium, and people park half a mile away from home — then take public transit.”

As a result, residential charge points that allow drivers to juice up overnight at home are likely to have a small role, he said, relative to installations at shopping centers and other commercial sites (Allan Schurr, VP for Energy & Utilities at IBM (s IBM) anticipates similar challenges for the U.S. market). In a mobility-centric, as opposed to EV-centric, model for greener transportation — whether in China or the U.S. — that public transit piece will continue to play an important role. But it could get considerably more high tech.

Focusing on the ends, while being creative about the means, is what two closely linked concepts — mobility as a service and Mobility on Demand (MoD) — are all about: getting people from A to B by way of trains, buses, cars, scooters and bicycles (the greener, the better) that they don’t necessarily own, with the help of communication networks, GPS and smart algorithms for managing both users and vehicle fleets.

While electric vehicles may not provide a total solution, they are serving to jump-start development of new business models for mobility service providers. As part of a trend I explored in depth for GigaOM Pro (our subscription-only research service), companies are beginning to experiment with ways to package insurance, energy, maintenance and other services around plug-in vehicles.

Image credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza