Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Chrome is Huge in China"

Last year, 17 million cars were sold in China and 10 million were sold in the US. This radical shift was not a one-time blip. The epicenter of new car sales has moved to China.

Now, western car companies just have to figure out what Chinese people want to drive.

From Wired Magazine:

Western automakers have started designing cars specifically for the huge Chinese market, and we don’t mean just meeting tighter pollution and fuel-efficiency standards.

The new cars and concepts have exterior contours that comport to Chinese ideas of balance, with interior colors and fabrics designed to signify status and evoke respect. The controls for entertainment and climate systems might even be moving to the back seat, because truly wealthy people don’t drive, they have drivers.

Thirty years ago, the People’s Republic of China was an automotive backwater. Today it’s the biggest market in the world, having just eclipsed the United States. So, its consumers are demanding the best from automotive designers.

The explosive growth of the Chinese market, where consumers bought 17 million new cars last year compared to about 10 million in the United States, has been a bright light in an otherwise dark time for the auto industry. As the traditional markets of North America, Europe and Japan stagnate or decline, automakers have seen their sales in China double and double again.

“This is clearly the market of the future,” says Freidhelm Engler, General Motors director of design in China. “It’s not going to slow down.”

Read On

This is a great article. It nails Chinese people's expectations of cars. Chrome is huge. Harmony in colors is key. And the back seat passenger controls the radio and the sunroof (many car owners have hired drivers driving them around).

Although I wasn't alive in the United States in the 50s and 60s, I'm pretty sure that the car boom during that time is in some way analogous to the car boom going on in China right now. In the 50s, President Eisenhower dreamed of an interstate highway system and built it. Last year, China's leaders stimulated its economy with billions and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure spending. Highways are a big part of that "infrastructure." China, in its own way, is reliving this:

Like Americans a generation or two ago, young Chinese people view car ownership as a status symbol and are proud to drive. Cars have been deprived from most Chinese people for so long that many jump when they have the chance to make the purchase (not to mention that car ownership is an absolute prerequisite for many young urban men hoping to find a suitable bride).

I don't necessarily think that China's decision (it's not just happening, the powers that be have decided to go this route) to make China a car-owning society is a good thing. I believe that I know the drawbacks of car ownership almost as much as anybody.

My hometown of Kansas City has "more miles of limited access highway lanes per capita than any other large metro area in the United States." I don't have international rankings, but considering how developed the United States' interstate highway system is, I feel safe in saying that Kansas City has the most highway lanes per capita of any city on Earth. Interstates 29, 35, and 70 coming together here, indeed, make Kansas City the highway mecca of the world.

What's the consequence? Many Kansas Citians would say our city is "convenient." Here in KC, we don't have many traffic jams. Yes, we can zip around to different parts of the metropolitan area with great ease.

But after having lived abroad and outside of Kansas City for many years, I often wonder why we're so crazy for our cars. Why do we put this "convenience" of zipping around on unsafe highways above living in a more compact land area? And at what cost - both monetarily and culturally - are these highways?

To me, Kansas City's addiction to cars is bordering on disgusting. I'm more and more convinced that being dependent upon cars is a burden rather than a convenience or expression of freedom.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I was thinking the same things as I read that first paragraph, that China is going to exeperience a love affair with the car much like we did in the 50's and 60's. Much like the video says, the car will appeal to Chinese buyers as an expression of status and freedom much as it did here.

I too have grown into a different view of the automobile. An American rite of passage is getting that first car as a teenager. I always had car posters on my walls in high school and have been a car nut even to this day. However, there is always a flip side to the coin. I often think how much I would rather our cities were more accomadating to bikes, the new e-bikes, segways, etc. At this stage, I would happily give up the car payments, insurance, registration, risk of accidents, pollution, traffic jams, etc., even if it means sacrificing all the things I love about the automobile.

In my visit to China I was amazed at how many questions I fielded regarding car ownership. Mostly from people who may never own a car. When I tried to tell them that owning a car in America was an unwanted necessity for me they seemed quite puzzled that someone would NOT want to own a car.

The car boom in China is inevitable. I think we would have about as much chance convincing China that it and the world really are better off without the gas guzzlers as someone would have had in getting me to turn in my first set of car keys for a bicycle. None.

Ramesh said...

The fixation on cars seems to be universal. No doubt China, and in due course, other countries will have huge car ownerships as people aspire for the good things in life.

I don't think car ownership can be discouraged or curtailed. Witness the situation in Singapore where owning a car is as expensive to owning a luxury yacht. And yet there is no dearth of people wanting to splurge a fortune to own a car despite a superb public transportation system.

I think the only thing that can defeat the car industry is the discovery of magnetic levitation !!

Hope you are liking your new job and you and Qian are well settled in the new home. Would she write a guest post on her first impressions of America ?

Matt said...

I would agree on the car culture in China, and also agree on being somewhat disgusted with car culture in the U.S. - especially as we continue to grow more obese as a nation. When you physically CAN'T walk somewhere that's half a mile from your home, is it any wonder that our lifestyles are generally unhealthy?

Fortunately, while China is experiencing a car boom, they are also working on high-speed rail and subway systems like crazy, and the high number of people who still won't be able to afford cars anytime soon somewhat guarantees that there will be room for bicycles, e-bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles on the road for some time to come. I think the car may still be a status symbol, but I also think the variety of other options will mean that when the car craze starts to die a bit, people there won't be as locked in as we are here.

Anonymous said...

"Would she write a guest post on her first impressions of America ?"

Awesome idea Ramesh. I second the motion!

Mark said...

Awesome comments on this post, guys.

I'll talk with Qian about posting here. She's a little bit mystified by this blog to be honest. She gets QQ and Facebook, but not blogging as much. I'll see what I can do though on convincing her though.

@Hopfrog - I feel the same way about cars. I, in a way, regret that China is going down this road, but there's nothing we can do about it. And it's hypocritical for me to say they shouldn't.

@Ramesh - Agree with everything you say.

My job is going well! It's a really interesting job. It's rare where I have nothing to do or am bored. I'm pretty much always having to use my mind to do things. I don't know what more one can ask for in a job than that!

And Qian is getting more and more situated here. She has a really good job opportunity possibly brewing. We'll see if it turns out!

@Matt - You're right about the US and China being different. China is setting itself up much better than the US currently is. The US is completely and utterly dependent upon individual car ownership. The Chinese aren't going to be for some time (or ever).

I'm not sure that there will be room on the road for bikes on the road though. The traffic on the roads will continue to move slow, but space is already getting cramped. The more and more cars on the road are going to make it worse and worse.

The difference between the roads in 2006 and 2009 in Xi'an is unreal. The traffic in Xi'an is soooooo much worse now. It's not even funny. I can only imagine that traffic is going to get worse and worse.

Saying that, I totally agree with you that the subways and trains and all of that stuff that China's developing is great.

Mark Carver said...

Environmental detriment aside, I support the growth of China's car industry because it has the potential to be a dominant economic gear that will drive countless subindustries, as it has in the States. Not to mention it would substantially boost China's "cool" factor, which right now is sucktacularly lame with everyone driving black European sedans with those ridiculous wobbling solar-powered flowers on the dash. Sadly the muscle car will never catch on here because the streets are so damn clogged with bikes, people, and barbecue stands, but the rice rocket fad is gaining speed. Pluses and minuses on both sides, but as we have seen in America, Germany, and Japan, the auto industry has been an emerging economy's secret ingredient.