By Fang Yan and Don Durfee
SHENZHEN (Reuters) - A pioneering electric taxi project in China's southern economic powerhouse of Shenzhen seems a success by most accounts. Riders are enthusiastic, there have been no accidents and drivers are termed "gracious," not a term usually applied to mainland drivers.
The pilot project, which could be replicated in other cities, underpins China's ambitious plans to put at least half a million electric vehicles (EV) and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015.
The country is already the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and other human activities that scientists say are causing global warming.
As the world's largest and fastest-growing auto market, China's carbon footprint can only grow.
To bolster China's energy security, Beijing has pronounced the electric vehicle industry a top priority, earmarking $1.5 billion annually for the next 10 years in the hope it can transform the country into one of the leading producers of clean vehicles.
But even with government support and the popular support of e-taxi customers, challenges remain for electric vehicles such as the e-taxis to gain broader acceptance and widespread use.
Charging stations are few and far between, repair shops are hard to find and the cars are costly. Even after generous government support, the Shenzhen e-taxi costs 80 percent more than the Volkswagen Santana that ordinarily cruises the streets of Shenzhen.
"The electric car is still too expensive and we ended up paying a lot more than for a (VW) Santana, even with government subsidies," said Du Jun, general manager of Pengcheng E-taxi, the taxi operator participating in the pilot project.
Local automakers, from SAIC Motor to Dongfeng Motor Group Co, have pledged massive investments in greener vehicles. Global automakers, including BMW and Nissan Motor, are also working with local governments to roll out their E-Mini and Leaf respectively.
The country's investment in the electric vehicle industry has no comparable program in the United States, although the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would allocate $2.9 billion for a program to help develop the infrastructure for the widespread use of electric cars.
Germany's cabinet agreed on plans in May to boost the country's electric auto sector with billions of euros in subsidies, aiming to have 1 million of the cars on the road by 2020. Berlin's move will double state support for research and development to 2 billion euros through 2013.
For China to hit its EV targets however, will mean quickly winning market acceptance for an untested technology.
"I think it's going to be a very, very long time because the Chinese consumer, at the end of the day, is very pragmatic and wants a reliable car with a gasoline engine. They don't want to be the ones experimenting," said Michael Dunne, president of industry consultancy Dunne & Co. in Hong Kong.
"You're going to see government fleets buying, buses buying, not a mass movement toward electrics, definitely within the five years."
HAPPY RIDERS, WARY OPERATOR
In 2009, the Chinese government picked Shenzhen, along with 12 other cities, to lead the migration to green vehicles. Shenzhen and Hangzhou are the only ones attempting to launch e-taxi fleets.
State-controlled Pengcheng E-Taxi, partly owned by BYD, a major domestic manufacturer of green vehicles, was incorporated in March 2010. Fifty e6 cabs, made by the Warren Buffett-backed automaker, hit the roads in the city three months later.
"People are really interested in the car. Over 90 percent of customers start asking questions once they get in. And it's not just me. All my colleagues have similar experiences as well," said Zeng Xiweng, one of the company's top drivers.
Shenzhen resident Daniel Li recently took a ride in an electric taxi, one of the red cars with a wavy white band around the body that have been operating around the southern Chinese city for more than a year.
"I like the car. It's big and sturdy, pretty much like an SUV but not as noisy. It also saves me the 3 yuan fuel surcharge," the 32-year old software engineer said as he got out of the taxi. "The problem is there aren't many out there."
BYD is using the pilot project to gather market feedback and make adjustments to the vehicles before rolling out the electric car nationwide.
"We had anticipated a lot of problems early on, but that did not happen and the data we've collected are actually better than what we got in lab tests," Stella Li, senior vice president of BYD, said in an interview.
But for Du Jun of Pengcheng, the project's hurdles are apparent. The company is still sitting on a big loss that Du blames on hefty upfront investments, insufficient charging spots and the limited distance that an EV can travel per charge.
And then there's the cost. Though cheaper to operate, BYD's e6 taxi costs 179,800 yuan ($28,000) after deducting 120,000 yuan in subsidies, compared with less than 100,000 yuan for Volkswagen's Santana.
In Hangzhou, a similar green pilot programme stumbled when all the 30 of the city's electric taxis, which appeared on the streets in late January, were pulled from service in April after one cab's engine compartment caught fire. The fleet resumed operations in June.
"Taxis are definitely a smart way for people to gain the kind of practical hands-on, in-the-field experience, but it will be very closely watched," said William Russo, an industry veteran who runs the Synergistics consulting firm in Beijing.
For their part, automakers have decided that China's green-car drive is a good bet, but BYD has more at stake than others.
The company, 10 percent-owned by Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has been pushing more aggressively into clean technologies, from plug-in hybrids to energy storage facilities. The company recently raised $219 million in an IPO in Shenzhen to help fund battery research.
It has sold several hundred of the F3DM plug-in hybrid in China so far, more than any other domestic automakers, and its e6 will be available in showrooms in Beijing and Shenzhen in the second half.
BYD plans to deliver 250 more e6 cabs to Pengcheng by August. It will also provide 200 of its electric buses in coming months to the city's public transportation system.
An electric sedan, jointly developed BYD and Daimler, will also be launched by 2013, Li said.
Green cars have yet to take off with ordinary consumers, though, despite consumer subsidies that Beijing started offering last year in some cities.
In Shanghai for example, a metropolitan area with a population of more than 20 million, there are only 10 registered electric cars, while the number in Hangzhou is only slightly higher at 25, according to China Business News.
"Consumers are less concerned about government interests. They are more concerned about the economics and the real practical side of what it means to own an electric vehicle," said Synergistics' Russo. "They are not going to buy an EV to save the planet. They will buy it only when it saves them money."
(Additional reporting by Chyen Yee Lee and Alsion Leung in Hong Kong; Editing by Matt Driskill)
(This story was corrected to reflect the amount of subsidies provided for electric vehicle purchases)