China Set to Act on Fuel Economy
GUANGZHOU, China, Nov. 17 — The Chinese government is preparing to impose minimum fuel economy standards on new cars for the first time, and the rules will be significantly more stringent than those in the United States, according to Chinese experts involved in drafting them.
The new standards are intended both to save energy and to force automakers to introduce the latest hybrid engines and other technology in China, in hopes of easing the nation's swiftly rising dependence on oil imports from volatile countries in the Middle East.
They are the latest and most ambitious in a series of steps to regulate China's rapidly growing auto industry, after moves earlier this year to require that air bags be provided for both front-seat occupants in most new vehicles and that new family vehicles sold in major cities meet air pollution standards nearly as strict as those in Western Europe and the United States.
Some popular vehicles now built in China by Western automakers, including the Chevrolet Blazer, do not measure up to the standards the government has drafted, and may have to be modified to get better gas mileage before the first phase of the new rules becomes effective in July 2005.
The Chinese initiative comes at a time when Congress is close to completing work on a major energy bill that would make no significant changes in America's fuel economy rules for vehicles. The Chinese standards, in general, call for new cars, vans and sport utility vehicles to get as much as two miles a gallon of fuel more in 2005 than the average required in the United States, and about five miles more in 2008.
This country's economy is booming, and a growing upper class in big cities like this one is rapidly buying all the accouterments of a prosperous Western life, including cars. As China burns more fossil fuels, both in factories and in a rapidly growing fleet of motor vehicles, its contribution to global warming is also rising faster than any other country's.
But Zhang Jianwei, the vice president and top technical official of the Chinese agency that writes vehicle standards, said in a telephone interview on Monday that energy security was the paramount concern in drafting the new automotive fuel economy rules, and that global warming had received little attention.
"China has become an important importer of oil so it has to have regulations to save energy," said Mr. Zhang, who is also deputy secretary of the 39-member interagency committee that approved the rules at a meeting this month.
China was a net oil exporter until a decade ago, but its output has not kept up with soaring demand. It now depends on imports of oil for one-third of its needs, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Angola. Before the war, Iraq was also an important supplier. By comparison, the United States now imports about 55 percent of the oil it uses.
The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, the volume of China's oil imports will equal American imports now. Chinese strategists have expressed growing worry about depending on a lifeline of oil tankers stretching across the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca, a waterway plagued by piracy, and across the South China Sea, protected mainly by the United States Navy.
Various Chinese government agencies still have three months to review the legal language in the fuel economy rules, giving automakers some time to lobby against them; as yet, there has been no mention of the approval of the new rules in the government-controlled Chinese media.
But Mr. Zhang said that the rules in draft form were the product of a very strong consensus among government agencies and that "the technical content won't be changed."
Two executives at Volkswagen, the largest foreign automaker in China, said that representatives of their company and of domestic Chinese automakers attended what they described as the final interagency meeting to approve the rules. Under pressure from the government, these auto industry representatives agreed to the new rules despite misgivings, the executives said. "They had no choice but to agree," one of the Volkswagen executives added.
The executive said that Volkswagen's vehicles would meet the first phase of the standards in 2005, while declining to comment on compliance with the second, more rigorous phase, which is to take effect in July 2008.
The new standards are based on a vehicle's weight — lighter vehicles must go the farthest on a gallon — and on the type of transmission, with manual-shift cars required to go farther than those with less efficient automatic transmissions.
In a major departure from American practice, all new sport utility vehicles and minivans in China would be required to meet the same standards as automatic-shift cars of the same weight. In the United States, standards for sport utilities and minivans are much lower than for cars.
The Chinese rules do not cover pickups or commercial trucks. According to General Motors market research, there is little demand for pickup trucks in China except from businesses, because the affluent urban consumer who can afford a new vehicle regards pickup trucks as unsophisticated and too reminiscent of the horse-drawn carts still used in some rural areas.
Typically, heavy vehicles are much harder on fuel than light ones, but the new Chinese standards permit the heavy vehicles to get only slightly worse gas mileage. As a result, they provide an incentive for manufacturers to offer smaller, lighter vehicles, which will be easier to design.
The new standards would require all small cars sold in China to achieve slightly better gas mileage than the average new small car sold in the United States now gets, according to calculations by An Feng, a transportation consultant who advised the government on the rules. But officials in Beijing would require much better minimum gas mileage for minivans and, especially, S.U.V.'s than the average vehicle of either type now gets in the United States.
American regulations call for each automaker to produce a fleet of passenger cars with an average fuel economy of 27.5 miles a gallon under a combination of city and highway driving with no traffic; window-sticker values for gas mileage, which include the effects of traffic, are about 15 percent lower. Light trucks, including vans, S.U.V.'s and pickups, are allowed an average of 20.7 miles a gallon without traffic.
But the Bush administration has raised the comparable American standard to 22.2 miles a gallon for the 2007 model year and is now completing a review of whether to raise limits further for 2008. The administration is also considering adopting different standards for different weight classes of light trucks.
Over all, average fuel economy in the United States has been eroding since the late 1980's as automakers shifted production from cars to light trucks. It fell in the 2002 model year to the lowest level since 1980. Automakers in Europe have accepted European Union demands to increase fuel economy under different rules that could prove at least as stringent as China's minimums.
The Chinese standards would require the greatest increases for full-size S.U.V.'s like the Ford Expedition, which would have to go as much as 29 percent farther on a gallon of fuel in 2008 than they do now in the United States, Mr. An calculated. Sport utility sales in China have more than doubled so far this year, but are still a much smaller part of the overall market than they are in the United States.
Because the American standards are fleet averages while the Chinese standards are minimums for each vehicle, the effect of the Chinese rules could be considerably more stringent. A manufacturer can sell vehicles in the United States that are far below average in fuel efficiency if it has others in its product line that offset it by being above average. But under the Chinese rules, the fuel-inefficient models — especially new ones introduced after the standards take effect — would be subject to fines no matter how well their siblings do, Mr. Zhang said, and the maker would not be allowed to expand production of the gas-guzzling models. In Garrison Keillor's phrase, China plans to require that every vehicle be above average.
Mr. An said that at the final meetings on the new rules, the only outspoken objections had come from a representative of the Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Company, which makes Jeeps in a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler.
According to people who have seen the new standards, many Jeep models sold in China do not now comply with them; neither do the Chevrolet Blazer sport utilities built by a General Motors joint venture in Shenyang. Some of Volkswagen's car models also fall slightly short, these people said. By contrast, Honda's cars, built at a sprawling factory complex here in Guangzhou, the commercial hub of southern China, would comply easily because they use advanced engine technology, these people said.
Trevor Hale, a DaimlerChrysler spokesman, declined to comment in detail. "DaimlerChrysler complies with local regulations where it does business," Mr. Hale said in an e-mail response to an inquiry. "It continues working to improve fuel economy in the vehicles it develops, builds and sells around the world."
Bernd Leissner, the president of Volkswagen Asia Pacific, said that his company's cars would comply because "it's just a question of how to adapt the engine — it's something that could be done quickly."
The fastest way to improve fuel efficiency is to switch from gasoline to diesel engines, as Volkswagen is starting to do in China. The latest diesel engines are much cleaner than those of a decade ago, but are still more polluting than gasoline engines of similar power.
A spokeswoman for General Motors, which is beginning to introduce Cadillac luxury cars in China, said she did not have enough information about the newly drafted rules to comment on them, but that her company's vehicles were comparable in fuel economy to those of rival manufacturers in the same market segments. Executives of G.M. were preparing for an event in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday when the company plans to showcase examples of its work on gasoline-saving fuel-cell and hybrid engines for cars.
In the United States, G.M. has argued that tighter fuel economy rules are unnecessary because technological improvements will someday improve efficiency anyway. G.M. and other automakers have also contended in the United States that higher gasoline taxes would represent a better policy than higher gas mileage standards, because it would give drivers an economic incentive to choose more efficient vehicles and to drive fewer miles.
China is still considering its policy on fuel taxes, but has not acted so far, because higher fuel taxes would impose higher costs on many sections of society, Mr. Zhang said.
Another company that could run into trouble over the Chinese mileage standards is Toyota, which on Nov. 6 began selling a locally produced version of its full-size Land Cruiser sport utility vehicle in China. A spokesman said on Monday that Toyota had not yet heard about the new Chinese fuel economy regulations, which have been prepared with a level of secrecy typical of many Chinese regulatory actions.
Japan is also phasing in new fuel efficiency standards based on vehicle weight that allow heavier vehicles only slightly worse gas mileage than lighter ones. American automakers have complained that the Japanese rules discriminate against them because Japanese automakers tend to produce slightly lighter cars anyway.
China has more than 100 automakers, as Detroit did a century ago, but the bulk of its output comes from a small number of joint ventures with multinational companies. Total production has more than doubled in the last three years, to about 3.8 million cars and light trucks in 2002, nearly as many as Germany. The United States builds about 12 million a year, Japan about 10 million.
The cars that Chinese automakers produce on their own tend to be very small and lightweight, but the engines are built on older technology, and may not have an easy time complying with the new fuel economy standards.
The government has been encouraging the industry to consolidate, and the new rules may hasten that process by forcing investment in engine designs that small companies may not be able to afford on their own.
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