Beijing auto show: From battery to hydrogen fuel cell, carmakers explore new paths

Reuters – Updated September 29, 2020
The Beijing auto show, the first major in-person sales event for the industry since the coronavirus pandemic began, kicked off on Saturday.

After being delayed for five months, the 10-day mega motor show signaled that the world’s largest auto market is ready to come back.

“The recovery in the Chinese market has been very remarkable, and our key segments have returned to the previous year’s level if not slightly better,” Nissan Motor CEO Makoto Uchida told a news conference via a video link from Japan.

At this year’s show, new energy vehicles (NEVs) including battery electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles dominated a larger space at the 200,000-square-meter exhibition hall compared with two years ago.

Standing at the crossroads of the next trend, worldwide carmakers are seeking different technological paths to cater Chinese consumers.

The 16th Beijing International Automotive Exhibition (Auto China 2020) at the China International Exhibition Center. /CFP

Battery performance

Battery performance is always a selling point for carmakers. At this year’s auto show, Geely brought its first electric vehicle DC1E targeting the 700-km-range per charge, while BAIC BJEV debuted its Arcfox Alpha-T which can reach a maximum range of up to 653km. Ford said its new Mustang Mach-E is also capable of driving 680km per charge.

Data shows that the majority of EVs struggled to reach the 200-km-maximum-range per charge in 2017, but the number doubled in 2018. The average range per charge is now over 600km.

Geely Automobile Holdings displays its concept vehicle during a launch event in Beijing, China, September 23, 2020. /CFP

An EV car dealer told CGTN that battery and range have always been major concerns for customers. Therefore, a competitive battery performance will be advantageous for both domestic and oversea automakers.

Battery manufacturers are gearing up to support automakers to improve their competitiveness. In June, China’s CATL, a Tesla TSLA.O supplier, said it is working on a new technology that will allow battery cells to be integrated within an electric car’s chassis, shedding traditional casings that make battery systems bulky.

Integrating cells directly into an EV frame will allow more cells to be loaded into a car and extend its range.

With the new technology, EVs could have a driving range of over 800km, CATL Chairman Zeng Yuqun said at an industry conference in Wuhan in August, adding that the company is aiming to launch the technology before 2030.

But blindly pursuing range is bound to come at the expense of the battery life. “One of the reasons that stops consumers buying a new EV is the rapidly declined value caused by short battery lifespan,” Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the Passenger Car Market Information Association, said.

According to the China automotive hedge rate report 2019, except for Tesla, which can keep the rate above 70 percent, all other brands remained at a relatively low level, and the residual value rate of these vehicles after one year’s use is as high as 60 percent.

“Automakers need to improve the per-charge-range while extend the battery life to make EVs more cost-effective than traditional cars,” Cui said.

Toyota exhibits it second generation Mirai. /CFP

Hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cells are another eye-catching technology demonstrated at the show. Toyota exhibited its second generation Mirai which features three hydrogen tanks that enables itself to store up to six kilograms of the condensed gas, translating into a +30 percent range boost.

Shanghai-based SAIC Motor also showcased its MAXUS EUNIQ 7, a newcomer the company claimed as the world’s first high-end hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Generating electricity via chemical reactions, hydrogen-powered vehicles have long been considered as one of the cleanest new energy types thanks to their pollution-free nature.

As a major branch for the roadmap of China’s new energy vehicles, the new type has received heavy investment and policy support from the Chinese government and the auto industry.

Last week, a new package of policies detailing supports for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles was rolled out by the country’s finance ministry.

Different from previous policies which offer NEV makers subsidies on sales, the fresh package requires local governments and companies to build a more mature supply chain and business model for the industry.

They need to prove their joint projects are able to lower the price of hydrogen fuel, increase the number of hydrogen-charging stations, enlarge hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleets and improve related technologies, according to the document.

Compared with over four million pure EV and plug-in hybrid vehicles, China’s hydrogen-powered vehicle market, a fleet of just over 7,000, is relatively small.

Industry analysts believe that the hydrogen fuel cell remains a cutting-edge technology. For the current stage, propulsion systems still need to make a breakthrough.

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