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Exclusive interview with Ma Zhong, CH-Auto, Beijing

19 May 2011

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CH-Auto Technology Corporation is one of a growing number of automotive R&D service companies based in China that provides support to OEMs. In 2010, CH-Auto impressed with the electric concept car Aculeus that was developed as full production car to be made in limited volume for sale in China. General Manager of the Electromobile Business Unit of CH-China Mr. Ma Zhong talked to cars21.com about the Chinese EV sector and the topic of his presentation at the 2nd China Automotive Market Expansion Summit, that took place from 12-13 May in Shanghai.
cars21.com: Can you explain us in a few words the activities of CH-Auto?

Ma Zhong: CH-Auto is a leading automotive design company in China. It was set up in 2003 and was born from the first international joint venture in the Chinese automotive sector, Beijing Jeep. They were the first to become experts in the Chinese market for new vehicle design with modeling technologies. The core project engineering team then founded CH-Auto.

Our company is working with many Chinese companies such as the Chinese largest car manufacturer FAW, Chery, Geely, and Changfeng. CH-Auto has become the leading design company in the Chinese automotive market with an international team of experts. Our chief designer, for example, comes from GM.

cars21.com: When did CH-Auto start to get interested in the electric vehicle sector?

Zhong: We got interested in the EV market around two years ago and then presented our first electric concept cars last year. An important aspect for us is the engineering of the electric car. That means we did not take an existing platform and modify it to fit an EV, but we created an electric vehicle from scratch. We did that with simulation softwares which allowed us to calculate all parameters to design a car specifically for electric driving.

cars21.com: What makes your electric concept car special as compared to many other electric concepts cars?

Zhong: It combines the different concepts from major players in China who are interested in presenting their modified cars. Most of the concepts presented are not going to be industrialized because they have not been designed to be electric vehicles, they are modified versions of traditional cars.

Compared to international OEMs and their EVs such as the Nissan Leaf, GM's Volt or the Smart from Daimler, our concept does not have a technological advantage because we are lacking investment and experience. But the merit of our concept is that it represents an originally designed electric car for the Chinese market.

We see great opportunity in the Chinese market for automotive engineering, especially in the EV sector and around the battery switching concept but this needs a specially designed car. The whole new energy supply model is a big chance for Chinese companies.

cars21.com: Is the battery switching concept something China is focusing on?

Zhong: Yes. The reason is our industry structure. We have two super companies who dominate the electricity market: China State Grid and China Southern Power Grid. They are pushing the battery switching concept.

Also, Chinese local governments are pushing businesses and public transport to move to electric vehicles and for commercial fleets battery switching is a good solution.

cars21.com: How do you evaluate China's EV policy?

Zhong: Well, there are many announcements but China lacks a unified approach. It has to be taken into account that China's main motivation for moving to electric mobility is to reduce oil imports. People talk about reducing CO2 emissions or easing city traffic in this context, but this is mixing different topics together.

It is clear that the motorization of China has to be to a great part electric. There are still more than 1 billion people waiting to get mobile. If they all move to ICE, the whole world will suffer from the huge demand for oil.

cars21.com: So while the US and Europe are mainly motivated by emissions reductions to move to electric mobility, you would say that China's main reason is to reduce foreign oil dependence?


Zhong: I think the US is still split on the topic. Reducing the dependence from oil is also a point for them, but their motorization is already well advanced and they also have oil reserves on their own. China does not have such oil reserves.

cars21.com: China has already shown a great interest in producing E2W (e-bikes + e-scooters) for the EU market. Do you think the same behaviour will be adopted for the e-car market?

Zhong: From a technological point of view, the Chinese manufacturers are not ready yet. But they are also not interested because they are ramping up production right now for the future Chinese market.

cars21.com: How do you evaluate the potential of innovation in the Chinese EV market, namely in comparison to the Japanese, European and North American one?

Zhong: Technology develops step by step, so first we need to catch up. Then in order to innovate, we need to develop our own original understanding of the technology. For electric vehicles, China has defined as the three key areas the battery, the electric motor and the control units. In these areas, we have developed already some capacities. But in regard to the full vehicle design, I do not see much progress. This problematic will also be the topic of my presentation at the 2nd China Automotive Market Expansion Summit: break through the bottleneck of the industrialization of EVs in China needs the full vehicle design. We really need to invest the money and the time to develop this key component.

The Chinese government is eager to see a domestic electric vehicle industry developing. But before this can happen, we need to have products and before having products we need the design. This demands technology input, money input and time input. CH-Auto is looking for partners to jointly realize the design for Chinese EVs.

cars21.com: Is China in this respect focusing on electric mobility or are hydrogen and fuel cell technology also part of the picture?

Zhong: We at CH-Auto focus on EV technology and belief that this will be the future. We know today the limits of electric mobility, but we also know in which areas it works and can be deployed to reduce our independency on oil.

As for fuel cells, we have some serious doubts about the practicality of this technology. It is complicated and expensive. We do not really see a future for this technology in China.

The fleet fuel consumption control measures by the government will probably force manufacturers to increase the production of hybrid cars for example, as they have lower fuel consumption. But it is unclear how they are going to balance cost and profit because the hybrids are expensive and will absorb much from the profit gained with conventional engine cars. The manufacturers will still need to push hybridization to comply with the regulation and avoid a penalty from the government though.

cars21.com: So there is a regulation that limits the fuel consumption of fleets?


Zhong: It is not in place yet, but in the pipeline. It will very likely enter into force from 2013-14 on. This will push fleets to hybrids as well as electric vehicles.

cars21.com: Can you give us an outlook on what the Chinese will do over the next 24 months to promote electric mobility?


Zhong: The big energy companies such as China State Grid and China Souther Power Grid Corporation but also the oil companies such as Petrol China and Sinopec China will invest a lot of money. The whole electric vehicle market is driven by the energy supply. It is not that people want to drive electrically but that in the future oil will not suffice. So this big companies invest for their future both in alternative energy vehicles as well as in new oil fields. If in the future 30% of the vehicles in China are EVs, this will constitute a huge market for them.

cars21.com: If you would be asked to formulate a global action plan for a rapid introduction of electric vehicles, what would be your top 3 points on the agenda?

Zhong: A policy for the whole world would need to consider that the burden of motorization must be equally shared and must to an important part integrate electric drive. The Chinese are not the only ones moving to motorized life. Next are the Indians. So the first step has to be to secure energy supply for mobility. In a second step it has of course to be considered how the energy is produced, in regards to CO2 emissions.

Secondly, we need to understand the electric drive is not comparable to conventional cars. Therefore, we will need the public power to create a market. In this regard, measures such as proposed by the EU who considers banning engine vehicles from cities by 2050 might be reasonable.

Thirdly, the EV sector needs more investment. It will probably not be profitable for the next 5-10 years but it needs investment. 

cars21.com: Many thanks for you time!


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