05 Mar 2009: Analysis

Surviving Two Billion Cars:
China Must Lead the Way

The number of vehicles worldwide is expected to reach two billion in the next two decades. Surprisingly, China – where the demand for cars has been skyrocketing – just may offer the best hope of creating a new, greener transportation model.

by deborah gordon and daniel sperling

From Shanghai to Sao Paulo, from Seoul to Tehran, conventional cars powered by conventional fuels are proliferating, intensifying economic, environmental, and energy stresses in the world’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Booming cities such as Bangkok and Moscow now have so many cars that their central thoroughfares look more like parking lots than streets. Unless we transform vehicles, fuels, and our concept of mobility, we will choke — literally and figuratively.

The globe now has more than 1 billion vehicles and is expected to hit the 2 billion mark within 20 years. And while the international economic crisis may have slowed things down momentarily, the desire for personal vehicles is powerful and the demand will not soon let up.

America pioneered the motorization of human society and leads the world in auto ownership today, with more than one auto for every licensed driver. But with vehicle growth rates over the past decade slowing to around 1 percent to 2 percent a year in the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, most vehicle growth is now in emerging nations. As the world gets richer, private car use will zoom ahead, especially among the 2.4 billion citizens of China and India. Beijing alone now adds nearly 1,500 cars to its roads every day.

Automakers are increasingly focusing their efforts on these emerging markets, with their phenomenal growth potential. A mass migration to
In January, for the first time ever, more cars were sold in China than in the United States.
urban areas has been driving the demand for autos. Over the past decade, China has tripled its vehicle fleet to 45 million while India’s has doubled to 15 million. And these figures do not include tens of millions of motorcycles and small, rural vehicles in these nations. In January 2009, for the first time ever, more cars were reportedly sold in China than in the U.S.

The question is, by 2020, how will the world’s growing mobility demands be met? If we remain wedded to conventional vehicles powered by conventional fuels, then we will be in a lot of trouble. Instead, we need long-overdue transportation innovations that will lead to cleaner, more efficient, safer vehicles running on greener fuels, together with an overhaul of public transportation systems and land-use development. Nowhere is this more urgent than in China.

Whichever countries bring these transportation innovations to the marketplace stand to gain economically and, politically, as champions of the public interest. Nations such as Japan, France, and the U.K and U.S. states such as California are taking the lead in terms of policy innovation, crafting laws that creatively deal with air quality, climate, and energy solutions. California enacted the first vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards that take into account the entire fuel cycle, from the wellhead to the wheel. France has bundled incentives and disincentives together to simultaneously reward, or penalize, consumers who buy lower, or higher, carbon-emitting cars. But it is China — with its limited oil resources, rapid development, and polluted cities — that may emerge as a leader.

This is because China is a hotbed of innovation, well positioned to respond to internal demands and international initiatives. Novel technologies are already sweeping China. Electric two-wheelers are the most successful
University of California, Berkeley
The popularity of electric two-wheelers in China may accelerate the growth of the electric-vehicle industry.
mass-marketed battery-powered electric vehicles in the world, with sales exceeding 15 million in China in 2007. They have immediate air-quality benefits, set the stage for a shift toward cleaner three- and four-wheel electric vehicles, and accelerate the development of the low-cost battery sector. Chinese automakers are also innovating with new ferrous batteries that could be much cheaper than lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride batteries and could be recharged in 10 minutes. This breakthrough would enable large-scale introduction of electric vehicles in China, ahead of Western Europe and the United States.

Low-carbon vehicle fuels from coal are another innovation China is working on, aided by international support for carbon capture and sequestration technologies. And bus rapid transit (BRT), where dedicated bus lanes carry almost as many passengers as a metro rail system at a fraction of the cost, are gaining widespread acceptance in Beijing, Shanghai and, other cities.

China’s government is also playing an increasingly supportive role in fostering innovation. It has imposed fuel economy standards on vehicles that are more aggressive than those in America and has adopted tough tailpipe standards that are closing the gap with the United States. Chinese leaders are adopting fiscal measures to shift taxes to favor more fuel-efficient cars.

These ideas are not entirely new. But what China can do, with its massive size and economy, is foster these ideas until they are fully developed and then launch them abroad.

It will take more than technological innovation, however, to transform transportation in China and the developing world. Sprawling land use and vehicle use must be managed and restrained. This will take government intervention, both through regulations and fiscal policies such as gas taxes and emissions fees.

In China and elsewhere, cities are following different paths when dealing with the problems associated with a growing number of vehicles. In the name of congestion, safety, and even public image, certain cities —
Traffic gridlock in Bangkok
including Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai — severely restrict or ban motorcycles, small rural vehicles, small cars, and even bicycles. Shanghai caps the number of new private car registrations annually, auctions auto registrations, limits parking, and makes it difficult to obtain a driver’s license. The city is considering a plan to charge cars for entering the central business district, as now exists in London. Shanghai’s more restrictive policies have led to a slower rate of car growth. With about the same population and wealth as Beijing, Shanghai residents own only one car for every six in Beijing.

Chinese mobility isn’t yet fixated on cars, except maybe in Beijing, where pro-car policies mean that new highways are built as quickly as old ones fill up. An enlightened car policy is key. Stronger metropolitan institutions such as regional planning commissions are needed to protect the environment, manage land development, and provide public transportation. China’s increasingly entrepreneurial culture must be allowed to leapfrog to new technologies that thrive at home and could be exported abroad, such as lightweight, plug-in hybrid vehicles, new electric-car infrastructure advances, and real-time, wireless travel information devices.

Will China actually play a leadership role in transforming vehicles, fuels, mobility, and land use? We think so, for a variety of reasons. For one, some in China are beginning to recognize the Faustian bargain of automotive industry success. They gain jobs, but suffer a raft of environmental, social, and even economic problems. China’s strong national and local governments could pave the way for precedent-setting fiscal and regulatory policies, such as emission-indexed vehicle user fees. The Chinese government is capable of strong and effective intervention, as demonstrated with its one-child policy. Imagine a similar policy applying to car ownership.

And then there are the Chinese people themselves. Despite sometimes harsh limits on personal freedom, they’re becoming more outspoken in demanding a cleaner environment. All of this could add up to positive results as consumers and governments pressure automakers, oil companies, and developers that seek to thrive in one of the world’s fastest-growing nations.

Yet China’s fate rests not only on well-orchestrated approaches within the country, but also on international policies aimed at China. As China speeds ahead, the rest of the world must help steer. Financial incentives, technical assistance, and political pressure from the United States and other nations
Following the U.S. down the wrong path toward fossil fuel-dependent motorization could be catastrophic.
are needed. For example, public-private investment funds targeted at clean transport technologies, multilateral government support to increase financing of sustainable transportation projects, and help developing zero-emission-vehicle policies could all spur China to pursue a more sustainable course. The most car-centric nations owe it to themselves to be involved as more than mere observers. It’s in their self-interest to enthusiastically and generously help China pursue a more benign transportation and energy path. When it comes to transportation, China’s missteps could be devastating, while its revolutionary innovations could be lifesaving for us all.

This isn’t charity. While China would benefit from aid and partnerships, so would the rest of the world. There are other awakening giants in our midst. Vehicle ownership in India, Brazil, Russia, and many other countries is rising rapidly. China might offer them a global model to follow.

Instead of overlooking or decrying the growing demand for cars in China, India, and elsewhere, the U.S. needs to encourage innovative solutions. As the global economy rebounds, China is poised to regain its phenomenal growth in affluence and mobility. Following the U.S. down the wrong path toward fossil fuel-dependent motorization could be catastrophic. Charting another course could be immensely beneficial.

We all win if tomorrow’s vehicles, fuels, and land use are transformed according to a new vision, one that accommodates the desire for personal mobility but with a reduced environmental footprint. It’s a vision that accommodates two billion vehicles, but rejects a transportation monoculture that isn’t going to take us where we need to go.

POSTED ON 05 Mar 2009 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Asia Europe North America 


What works in Europe and Japan won't work as well in much of the U.S. Similarly, Americans have rejected small dangerous cars which will dominate European and Asian markets for years to come — European markets because of very high fuel prices taxes, and Asian markets because of very low incomes.

China and India's car market will be dominated by cars that are light and economical. Sao Paulo's market is dominated by cars that can run on both alcohol and gasoline which in Sao Paolo is still 20 percent ethanol. America's market will continue to be dominated by cars bigger than the average offensive lineman that demonstrate at least a hint of safety.

Of course even with that hint of safety, you are still twice as likely to be killed in accident in a small car as a mid-size car, and that's true even in single car accidents. We value life in this country over trees. That's not going to change.
Posted by f1fan on 05 Mar 2009

Hi f1fan,

I think this story has some great points and I don't think you really saw what they were it is not comparing Autos in the US to those in China or India or Brazil.

if you read the full post it is about needing a change, try driving in New York , Los Angeles , Seattle or many other cities in the US where some times it takes hours to drive to work and back because of traffic. The smog is horrible the air is bad it is helping heat up the planet and spewing Carbon Dioxide in to the enviroment try breathing in parts of brazil, mexico city or many cities in china and around the world it is horrible so now imagine twice as much cars in traffic and twice the mufflers spewing carbon dioxide into the air. It doesn't look good unless like the post suggest something is changed.

Posted by Hydrogen Autos on 06 Mar 2009

We will never get to 2 billion cars. Linear projections like this which take no account of resource limits, global warming, or the economic crash (largely a result of resource limits) are simply not to be taken seriously
Posted by Jerry Silberman on 06 Mar 2009

f1fan, I think you have a distorted vision of "small dangerous cars" that we drive here in Europe.

European cars, or car driven in Europe, are more than safe, and - after some years of craziness - sales of SUVs and of other absurdly big cars are finally decreasing, and not only because last year oil spike, but because people is at last convinced that it's exactly that kind of ridiculously big cars that make the real danger.

Europe has always been the world leader in car safety and low fuel consumption and pollution: that's a fact.
Posted by jamesnach on 06 Mar 2009

Sorry but if you hit a tree or tractor trailer, your much better off in a Chevy impala, than the average small car. And unless you are gonna ban trees and tractor trailers, what I said was true and backed up by lots of statistics. http://editorial.autos.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=435759

That does not mean a Formula 1 race car is not safer than an Impala, but it does mean that in similarly constructed vehicles, SIZE MATTERS. (Please don't tell my wife.) To argue otherwise is ignore facts and espouse propaganda.

I think truth and accuracy are two of the things that hold back the green arguments. Greens seem to be to willing to ignore facts, basic math, laws of physics and basic economics.
Posted by f1fan on 06 Mar 2009


By John Gartner December 19, 2006 |

"According to tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Hyundai Accent, Scion xB, and the Toyota Yaris (without optional side airbags) do poorly in side crash tests, while the Honda Fit, Chevy Aveo, and Hyundia Accent all rated poor in the rear crash test.

The statistics reinforce the test data, as the IIHS says the death rates in collisions and single car crashes are much higher than in midsize cars."

Take it up with IIHS if you don't believe it.

Posted by f1fan on 06 Mar 2009


You should better look at fatalities number by model of car and you will see that the Toyata Camry and Honda civic are doing better than most of SUV. SUV are not safer than smaller car, even on a minor crash they roll over, roll over are responsible of most of fatalities. The only vehicle that are safer than sedan are Van, but not SUV. by the way the new Toyota IQ get 5 stars in the crash test being barely bigger than a Smart. The bigger the safer is myth spread by the big three to sell their crap, but now they are bitten in the ass in return
Posted by Treehugger on 07 Mar 2009

Living in China's biggest city, Shanghai, I can safely say that this article is a pie-in-the-sky bit
of fantasy. The dream of personal car ownership is a tired relic of a bygone era and the sooner we can move beyond it the better off we'll be. Imagining even a small percentage of Indians
and Chinese trying living an American-style life of excessive consumption, damn the
consequences, sends a chill down my spine.

The real costs of car ownership are passed onto the rest of the population, who have to deal with pollution, road hazards, waste, congestion, and a host of environmental and quality of life issues.

Sitting in traffic, road rage, car wrecks, insurance, gas prices, theft, are all issues that
Americans accept, for the most part, without question. The idea that there may be a better
way seldom occurs to us. This lack of imagination is our shortcoming, and the fact that
we don't set a better example for developing countries to follow is our failure.

This is less true in Western Europe and Japan, and anybody who has enjoyed their wonderful
public transportation will be inclined to agree, commuting or traveling in a train or light rail
system is far more relaxing, productive and economical. I hope the Chinese will figure this
out in time and not repeat our mistakes. There are some encouraging indicators that this is already happening.

In any case, 2 billion cars will never happen; environmental crises and increasingly
constrained fossil fuels will see to this, in spite of our wishing one way or the other. The most we can do is prepare for a post-carbon future to make the transition as painless as possible.
Posted by BruisedLee on 08 Mar 2009

I would just like to add that for anybody who has
experienced the horrendous traffic that already
exists in high-population areas in Asia, such as
Bangkok, Mumbai, and many Chinese cities,
where population density is above 10,000/sqKm,
the idea of adding MORE cars is beyond insane. I
wonder if the authors have ever left the USA.
Posted by BruisedLee on 08 Mar 2009

F1 fan: driving a small car in the US is much more dangerous than driving one in Europe. Why? Because of the SUV's, of course. When a small car and an SUV crash, of course the small car has a disadvantage. But that's because the SUV is too heavy, not because the small car is too small.
Posted by kdd on 09 Mar 2009

Thanks for the information but explain how a small car being much more dangerous than a mid-size car in a single car accident, would have anything to do with an SUV?

I know you all want to believe that small "mini" cars are just as safe as full sized cars, but until the statistics or someone with a bit of credibility demonstrates it I have to go with the preponderance of evidence.

My kids will be driving mid-size or bigger cars, because I care more about them than the price of a gallon of gas or the environment.
Posted by f1fan on 09 Mar 2009

The authors wrote, "In January 2009, for the first time ever, more cars were reportedly sold in China than in the U.S."

Even in the context of this article that did not make sense given the authors other claims about vehicles in China. Here is what I found when I investigated this claim.


"Chinese figure included all vehicles produced in China - including heavy commercial vehicles and buses - while the US figure did not. Chinese passenger car production last year was 5.8m."

Doesn't anyone check facts anymore? Perhaps I got it wrong?
Posted by f1fan on 10 Mar 2009

I can´t see the numbers on resources envolved but are less than a big or little car; i dont measure the ecological footprints but will have less streets polution.

Any way I rather prefer bicecles for littled distances, mainly for runing things on city centers - free bikes.

Two wheels are already of my preferences !

Let's go on street pedals and sail boats on the waters!!
Posted by Paulo Ramos on 22 Mar 2009

Nothing will change as long as the marginal cost of taking a trip by driving is less than the marginal cost of the subway or bus. The cost of parking and gas would be the main factors in that. In China, both are very cheap--and if you can't find a spot in a parking lot, just park on the sidewalk.

Massive developments that are set way back from the street and take half an hour to walk around don't make it any more likely people will walk either.
Posted by M on 09 Apr 2009

The question is, by 2020, how will the world’s growing mobility demands be met? If we remain wedded to conventional vehicles powered by conventional fuels, then we will be in a lot of trouble. Instead, we need long-overdue transportation innovations that will lead to cleaner, more efficient, safer vehicles running on greener fuels, together with an overhaul of public transportation systems and land-use development. Nowhere is this more urgent than in China.
Posted by Assicurazioni on line on 18 Jun 2009

Electric cars no matter how cheap and easy to reload the batteries are not going to get us out of the emmidiate energy crisis. Since about 80% of all electric capacity is generated using fossil fuels, CO2 sequestering is a technique in its infancy (and potentially leathal when CO2 is released in mass amounts), and nuclear has a limited potential in replacing fossils (435 plants worldwide) and we would have to replace liters of petrol (10.000 km average per car, 10 kilometer to the liter) on top of the electricity consumption we allready use, doing the math is no rocket science (unless you have an MBA of course, since simple calculus seems to be beyond the scope off its alumni). And remember this: the production of a car contributes as much GHG's and cost as much energy as it will use during its lifetime!

What we would need is a radical shift away from "the growing need for mobility". Cheap and easy mobility was a feature in the socioeconomic landscape of humanity that lasted for about a hundred years. That is the harsh reality we will have to face. But hey, was that all so possitive, think of the hours spend behind the weel of your large automobile, think of the clutter and suburban sprawl cars have created, think of the noise (I live in Holland and I cannot get away from the sound of an internal combustion engine 24/7), think of the fatalities, think of the stench in cities.

Turning away from all that, resetting the speed of our lives, thinking more local, living more local, that does not have to be a bad thing. It was what humans have done for the past 3.000.000 years since Lucy looked out over the Rift Valley and the human adventure began. In 100 years the car has destroyed those structures and replaced them with disfunctional megacommunities not worthy of that name. In cities and suburban landscapes were people to people contacts are mainly governed by traffic lights and sleeping policemen, social collaps is preprogrammed.

We need a new meme to steer our future, a better meme, a more social meme, a smaller footprint.

Ed Kuipers MSc

Posted by Ed Kuipers on 02 Jul 2009

Car market development has really been the most important legacy from the last century, whose effects are very visible today.

The number of vehicles continues to grow, and it was logical this important growth would have interested the new global market economies, such China and India.

The real preoccupation must regard the effects of the growing number of vehicles. It's necessary to use new greener fuels to preserve planet safety. This is the right direction.

A new and efficace regulation about car mobility is also necessary for avoiding congestion because of circulation in the large cities.

The engagement of all countries on a global level is required.
Posted by Veronique on 04 Sep 2009

Living in New Delhi, India for the last 35 years, I can vouch for the fact that living here has become a nightmare!

As a doctor, I can tell you that the rise in respiratory diseases has skyrocketed in Delhi and much of it is because of the polluted air that we breathe.

I think, it is the collective will of the people that can change the attitude.

New Delhi govt. was forced to change all its bus fleet to Compressed Natural gas ( which is cleaner and less polluting than diesel) due a Public Interest Litigation filed by a common man in the Supreme Court. All of 5,000 buses has switched over to CNG.

The introduction of Delhi Metro (subway) has eased the burden as well.

Our pollution monitors have reported a substantial decrease in suspended particulate matter since then.

I think, having car holidays (as in Singapore) is the way forward and Congestion Charges as in Central London are some of the initiatives that are well worth mentioning.

Not only China but India should also be at the forefront of change!
Posted by Abhishek Arora on 13 Sep 2009

No doubt car usage is at an exponential rise in developing countries also. But in China usage of bicycles is high. There are separate lanes for bicycle riders. I was astonished at the number of bicycle users in Beijing itself. As I often quote there may be a time, with proliferation of cars” WHERE THERE IS A WHEEL, THERE IS NO WAY".

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 06 Feb 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
deborah gordon and daniel sperlingABOUT THE AUTHORS
Deborah Gordon is a transportation policy analyst who has worked with the National Commission on Energy Policy, the California Energy Commission, the Hewlett Foundation, and with the Chinese government to develop policies for its burgeoning auto fleet. She has also served as the director of the transportation and energy programs at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Daniel Sperling is professor of engineering and environmental science & policy at the University of California, Davis, and founding director of UC-Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies. He also serves on the California Air Resources Board, and has authored 10 books and over 200 technical papers and reports on transportation and energy. They are the authors of the recently published book, Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.



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