The Secret to Saving the Automotive Revolution


The signing this week of a landmark Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between UC Davis and the China Automotive Technology and Research Center (CATARC) on clean vehicle adoption comes at an opportune time.  China is experiencing explosive expansion in its vehicles market. At the same time, China’s leaders are eager to play a global role in sustainable transport and are looking for partners. China’s choice of UC Davis and California state agency representatives as partners in its “new energy” vehicles initiative represents a milestone in global transportation policy. Urban congestion contributes significantly to hazardous smog in major cities. And the issues are global: we are entering a critical stage in worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas and other mobile source emissions.

Five years ago, I co-authored a book about our world’s untenable future, hurtling toward two billion cars. I wrote: “From Paris to Fresno, and Deli to Shanghai, conventional motorization, conventional vehicles and conventional fuels are choking cities, literally and figuratively.” That book was a call to action for collaborative efforts to “reinvent vehicles, fuels and mobility.”*

This week’s announcement provides an important answer to that call. The new China–U.S. ZEV Policy Lab MOU focuses on joint research and cooperatiofn between UC Davis and CATARC, the administrative body that oversees and regulates many activities of the auto industry in China. It represents a unique partnership between our institutions, each a leader in technology and policies on zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) – or new energy vehicles, as they’re called in China.  The accord reflects the history and ongoing cooperation and information exchange between leaders of the CATARC and UC Davis transportation and energy programs. The primary partners to the MOU are the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis), the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy, and CATARC. Two ITS-Davis centers—the China Center for Energy and Transportation (C-CET) and the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle (PH&EV) Research Center— will play integral roles. Led by Director Yunshi Wang, who attended the MOU’s signing in China, C-CET is the only China-focused research center on transportation and energy in North America. The policy lab’s advisory board will be co-chaired by representatives of the California Air Resources Board, the world’s leader on clean vehicle policies, and the National Development and Reform Commission, a major Chinese government agency.

The collaboration will help expand the global market for ZEVs by providing intellectual support for the design of ZEV policies and the analysis of consumer markets, including demand for charging stations, different types of ZEV technologies, and effectiveness of incentives.

In the early stages of developing the China-U.S. ZEV Policy Lab, the partners discussed California’s groundbreaking ZEV regulation and the lessons learned from almost 25 years of implementation. Governor Jerry Brown’s comprehensive ZEV Action Plan was studied but discussions covered the full suite of vehicle and fuel policies that are shaping California’s clean transportation future and policies that have been implemented to date in China.

From these first meetings and subsequent dialogue, four specific activities of the ZEV Policy Lab will be pursued in collaboration:

1. Conduct joint policy research, share best practices and explore potential ZEV policy collaboration and implementation.

2. Conduct consumer behavior studies. UC Davis is a leader in consumer response to electric and other alternative fuel vehicles. This collaboration will result in the first major studies of Chinese consumer response to advanced energy vehicles.

3. Train advanced vehicle researchers and leaders in California and China.

4. Inform Chinese regional and central government officials on California’s ZEV and related vehicle policies, and exchange information between California and China regarding lessons learned.

China’s vehicle population is expanding rapidly, which presents both opportunities and challenges for the country and the world. In a 2011 paper, Yunshi and I, with graduate student researcher Jacob Teeter, forecasted vehicle population rates to grow by 13-17 percent per year, roughly double the rate for China forecasted by others.

China is now the world’s largest auto market. In 2013, its vehicle sales approached 22 million, topping U.S. 2013 light-duty vehicle sales of 15.6 million.

In the past year, China’s leadership has already proposed increasingly stringent fuel economy and emissions standards and actively promoted electric vehicles (EVs).  In January, the government outlined its latest fuel economy proposal, Phase 4, for reductions in fleet average fuel consumption for new cars sold in China 2016-2020. And in February, it announced plans to extend electric vehicle incentives.

Then in July, China set a goal for 30 percent of all government fleet vehicle purchases to be EVs by 2016. It also announced new financial incentives for installation of EV charging.

In a new working paper “China’s Electric Car Frustrations” Yunshi and I with Zheng “Marco” Wan offer some analysis on reasons the central government’s laudable ambitions to build a large EV industry and market are not being realized as fast as hoped: local protectionism, shifting vehicle technology strategies, limited charging infrastructure, and cautious behavior of battery and automotive manufacturers. Both California and China will need a broader set of policies, incentives and strategies to overcome consumer and industry resistance and the lack of a critically needed widespread charging infrastructure. California has made progress in the past year or two, and this initial success will give the policy lab a good launching point.

The policy lab will facilitate continued discussion on complex topics such as these. It will also serve as a formal structure for visiting researchers here at UC Davis, and vice versa. This year, we’ve been lucky to have the insights of a distinguished visiting scholar from China:  Dr. Yaodong Shi, Deputy Director-General in the Department of Industrial Economics’ Development Research Center for the State Council, a prominent Chinese government think tank. Dr. Shi is currently working on two research topics: challenges and options associated with natural gas transportation in China, and what China can learn about EV development from California.

The policy lab is an important milestone in the global effort to accelerate clean vehicle development. The CATARC-UC Davis collaboration will help spur efforts in California, the United States and China to promote best practices and policy initiatives.  We are excited to join with our partners in this major effort to bring about a more sustainable transportation system that provides clean, affordable mobility to the world.

Key UC Davis documents:

Read the UC Davis September 8, 2014 press release announcing the accord, and the MOU.

Top press coverage:

ClimateWire, Sacramento Bee, KGO Bay Area AM 810 News Radio

Additional Reading:

In the spirit of continued cooperation, another of my ITS-Davis colleagues, Lew Fulton, recently returned from another meeting in China sponsored by Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), the International Council on Clean Transportation and China’s CATARC.  Fulton spoke about GFEI’s goal of doubling fuel economy of new passenger vehicles by 2030.

Fuel Economy State of the World 2014: The World is Shifting into Gear on Fuel Economy,” FIA Foundation report edited by Lew Fulton and Sheila Watson (FIA Foundation) with various contributors.

*Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Zero Emission Market Acceleration Partnerships (MAP) is a new initiative to make available UC Davis’ 25 years of interdisciplinary expertise and research in vehicles, fuels and market response to cities and states to help them meet their sustainable transportation goals. It brings together local and state governmental, nongovernmental and research institutions from around the nation to integrate best practices and tackle challengesFor more information about the Zero Emission MAP partnership click here.


Yunshi Wang, Director of the China Center for Energy and Transportation at UC Davis, and Zhixin Wu, Deputy Director of the China Automotive Technology and Research Center shake hands in Tianjin, China as Alberto Ayala (far left), Deputy Executive Officer of the California Air Resources Board, and Gang Li (far right), Department Chief of the Industry Coordination Bureau of the National Development and Reform Commission look on during a signing ceremony Sept. 6. Credit: China Automotive Technology and Research Center/photo

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