Will China Lean Toward Electric or Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars?

While electric cars are on the road to becoming mainstream in the U.S. and Europe, they are still far from reaching that point in the world’s largest market, China. They have started to gain some modest traction only recently, but the electric car market there continues to be pretty slow, and the government is trying to give it a boost by offering generous incentives to everyone who decides to buy an alternative fuel vehicle. Government incentives programs don’t include hybrids, another very popular type of alternative fuel vehicle, but they do cover hydrogen-powered cars, which are more environmentally friendly than hybrids.

Since China has committed to put 5 million alternative-energy vehicles on its roads by 2020, in efforts to reduce air pollution and health problems caused by it, the country is expected to become a real Mecca for car makers that build alternative fuel vehicles. Some of them believe that Chinese buyers will be more interested in electric cars than hydrogen-powered cars, while others are convinced that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the future of the auto industry, and will try to push them more aggressively in the Chinese market.

European and U.S. car makers prefer to focus on all-electric cars, whereas their Japanese counterparts tend to incline more toward hydrogen vehicles. German automobile giants BMW and Daimler have already partnered up with some local companies to develop electric cars that will only be offered in China under new brands. BMW has started a collaboration with Brilliance Auto, and created a new brand named Zinoro. At the Guangzhou Auto Show that was held recently, they introduced the first car they’ve developed together, the Zinoro 1E, which is basically a slightly modified BMW X1, powered by an electric motor delivering 170 horsepower, with a 90-mile range.

Daimler plan to introduce the car they’ve developed together with BYD Auto, a car manufacturer with headquarters in Shenzhen, which will be sold under the brand Denza, sometime next year. It uses the Benz B-Class platform and is expected to be available for purchase in about 6-7 months.

One of the biggest U.S. car makers, GM, is also determined to try and tap the electric car market in China, with plans to offer some of its own existing models, such as the very successful Chevrolet Volt EV, along with new models, such as the Sail Springo EV, that it has developed with SAIC, one of China’s largest automobile companies.

Japanese giants Toyota and Honda, for their part, are investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cell technology, and insist that these types of vehicles are a more viable alternative to gasoline-powered cars than electric vehicles, mostly because they have a far better range.

That’s why Toyota unveiled their FCV concept, a hydrogen-powered sedan, which it plans to start selling in 2015, and Honda introduced their fuel-cell concept at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which is expected to hit Chinese dealerships soon, as well. However, they might have trouble selling large volumes of hydrogen-powered cars there, due to the lack of fueling stations and the fact that buyers are still not familiar with this type of technology.

At the moment, it seems that those that have chosen to go with electric cars might have the edge over their competitors pushing fuel-cell cars, mainly because of the slightly better infrastructure and because they are a much more affordable option for the consumer.

Jordan Perch is an automotive fanatic and “green cars” specialist. He is a regular contributor to DMV.com, a collaborative community for US drivers.

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