Tech

Why Are Beijing's Taxi Drivers Freezing?

Clean-energy projects need planning, not just money.

Just don't drive it in the winter.

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP

Beijing had the best of intentions when it started to promote all-electric taxis in 2011. Not only would the green cars reduce the city's choking pollution, but they'd highlight its commitment to becoming a center of innovation. There was just one problem: cold weather.

Electric cars lose their charge quickly when temperatures drop, reducing their range, utility and -- for taxi drivers -- profitability. Just ask the unlucky souls driving them around Beijing this winter. According to local news media, they're shutting off battery-draining heaters and driving in heavy boots that -- thanks to fares lost while charging their batteries -- they can't really afford.

With a laudable commitment to the environment, Beijing still plans to replace the city's entire fleet of 67,000 gas-powered taxis with greener ones. But as with so many of China's renewable-energy initiatives, this one prioritizes symbolism and publicity over planning and practicality. The results are likely to be disappointing.

Beijing's experiment started modestly enough, six years ago, with the introduction of 50 electric taxis in the suburbs. By the end of 2013, there were 1,000. But they didn't come cheap. In many areas, the favored vehicle was the Beiqi, made by state-owned Beijing Automotive Group Co., which cost as much as $35,000, compared to less than $10,000 for a comparable gas-powered car.

Another problem was that the number of charging stations around the city failed to keep up with demand. In 2014, there were 539 of them for 1,150 electric taxis. But thanks to the rapidly expanding number of private electric cars -- Beijing added 51,000 in 2016 alone -- that soon proved inadequate. One result was that taxi fleets spent half their time charging, with a typical wait time of two to three hours.

That's a real hardship for drivers. According to China's Economic Observer newspaper, a fully charged Beijing electric taxi has a range of about 90 miles. That's not far in a city where a daily commute averages 23 miles. And it gets worse with age: Drivers report that a year-old taxi's range drops to around 60 miles, and some older ones struggle to reach 30. A study last year found that the city's electric taxis average two charges, two trips and a mere 72 miles a day.

Unsurprisingly, many drivers want out. At Beijing Yinjian Taxi, the city's largest vendor, monthly rents for the cars have fallen from $1,000 in 2014 to as little as $300 today, as cabbies prove harder to attract. Although the city government is offering a $200 monthly subsidy to drivers who work a set number of hours in an electric taxi, there aren't many takers so far.

For a program with such admirable goals, that's disappointing -- but not unusual. In its impatient drive to become a leader in renewable energy and conservation, China often underinvests in the infrastructure needed to realize its ambitions. Much of the energy generated by China's wind-power turbines, for instance, never reaches consumers because the electric grid lacks the capacity to transmit it. In one province, fully 43 percent of generated wind power goes nowhere. The situation is similar in solar, where a significant amount of new capacity isn't even hooked up to the grid. In sunny, vast Xinjiang Province, more than half the solar power generated simply goes to waste.

If China continues to approach renewable energy this way, it isn't going to get very far. A better approach is to be, frankly, a little boring. Start by building up public works, such as power grids and charging stations, before imposing new-energy requirements and technologies. Amsterdam became a world leader in electric car use partly by installing charging stations on a large scale and shifting to electric public transit. It also established one of the world's few successful electric taxi fleets by giving drivers exclusive rights to pick up passengers from Schiphol Airport, where fast energy chargers are now waiting to cater to them.

That's doesn't sound quite as impressive as electrifying every taxi in an Asian megalopolis where the population exceeds 20 million. But it does help ensure that local cabbies aren't freezing behind the wheel. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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