“China has gone from having virtually no electric vehicles to having almost half of the world’s stock of electric passenger vehicles, and far more of it in the form of buses, trucks and two-wheeled engines,” says Mazzoco. “This was something of a surprise, even for Chinese politicians.”
At times, this has meant that the charging infrastructure has struggled to keep up. Shenzhen, home of electricity and battery maker BYD, provided an early case study. In 2017, all of the city’s buses were electric, and its taxi fleet went completely electric a year later. First there there were not enough chargers to keep up with the new demand.
From January, government guidelines require that each parking space in a new residential building come with charging options. Some cities had already demanded this and subsidized the cost of adding chargers to older buildings and parking lots.
But the driving habits in China are generally different from those in the West. Chinese car owners are more dependent on public charging infrastructure than their Western counterparts, Hove says. China’s two main state power companies, State Grid and Southern Grid, maintain networks of high-speed charging stations along highways, while private companies generally install facilities in towns and villages.
In older neighborhoods, electric charging can strain the grid, and utilities have been reluctant to make upgrades. Instead, they direct charging providers to build stations where the network is strong enough – places that may be less convenient for drivers. But the chargers that are in place along highways and at public stations are frustratingly slow, Hove explains. Many stores billed as fast chargers offered 50 kW of charging, which can take up to an hour. Roadside stations should instead be equipped with 100-kW or higher chargers, he says, which can fill a car up to as little as 15 minutes.
Progress in building charging infrastructure in China may have been rapid, but clumsy payment systems and broken chargers can still slow down a trip. In 2019, the Hove drove 900 miles from Beijing to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, in a NIO ES6 EV, a mid-size SUV. On that route, he mainly picked up at State Grid points along highways and private places in cities. “Charging was a team effort,” he says, and sometimes it required several people to scan QR codes or phone calls to station operators. At one point, his car had to be towed some distance off the road due to a damaged charging station. Another station he encountered in Beijing was so underutilized that weeds grew among the chargers. (The issue of poorly maintained stations is not unique to China.)
Chinese drivers are less likely to take long road trips like the one Hove tried, which can make range anxiety less of a concern as electric cars spread. This is partly due to the extensive train network, which i.a. more than 20,000 km of high-speed trains. A train from Beijing to Shanghai, for example, speeds passengers between cities in about four hours at a top speed of 217 mph. Hove’s journey from Beijing to Hohhot would take about five hours on the highway, and half the time by high-speed train. As a result, most people use their cars to travel inside cities or over short distances and take a train or plane for longer journeys.
Instead of expecting drivers to join in and wait, some companies are experimenting with battery replacement stations. These work a bit like car washes where people drive their electric cars in with almost dead batteries. A robotic system changes the battery in about five minutes while the driver waits in the car. The concept has flourished in other parts of the world, but it first gained momentum in China, where it has been popular with owners of truck and taxi fleets.
NIO, which in some ways aims to be a Chinese version of Tesla, has turned battery replacement into a luxury service, says Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources and environment at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The company currently has 949 stations across China, with plans to triple that number by 2025. Instead of buying batteries, more than 60 percent of NIO drivers in China use its “battery as a service” leasing program, which launches at about $ 150 a month for a certain number of swaps, with stations concentrated in major cities where NIO cars are popular. To further alleviate range anxiety, NIO offers permanent and flexible upgrades for higher capacity batteries and emergency roadside charging.