Electric taxis have been on the streets of Fangshan District since April 2012.

Taxis have always been a rare sight in Beijing’s suburbs. In their absence, residents have come to depend on a vast fleet of illegal cabs that carry expensive fares and other hidden dangers.

Yanqing County was the first to seek a solution. In 2011, it began running several electric taxis.

The green-energy cars now provide taxi service to seven rural areas including Yanqing, Fangshan, Pinggu, Changping, Huairou, Miyun and Daxing.

Subway extension

Unlike unlicensed cabs, electric taxis are approved by the state to be operated for profit. Passenger safety is guaranteed.

The taxis begin billing at 8 yuan, with 2 yuan added for each kilometer traveled after the first three.

“It used to cost me 20 yuan to take an unlicensed cab to work. The new cabs can save me 12 yuan each day” said a Daxing District resident surnamed Zhang. “Electric cars may not be able to travel great distances, but for residents like me it’s enough.”

Beijing's first charging station is in Yanqing County. CFP Photos

Beijing’s first charging station is in Yanqing County. CFP Photos

“I never used the unlicensed cabs because their drivers tend to huddle in a few locations. They are not helpful if I’m in a hurry, and my family would worry about my safety,” said a college student surnamed Luo who lives in Changping District.

Suburban demand for electric taxis is strong, and the district government sees them as an extension of the subway network.

“Beijing is too big. I live in Daxing District and commute to work in Haidian District by subway. There is no subway station near my home or bus to get me to one, it’s also far to ride a bike – even if I did, the subway doesn’t provide a place to lock it,” said an IT worker surnamed Yu. “For me, an electric taxi is the best option.”

The drivers of the electric taxis earn quite a bit: some gross 8,000 yuan with 4,000 yuan profit. The time required to charge an electric taxi, 6 to 8 hours, gives them a fixed rest period.

Some unlicensed cab drivers have started to apply for permission to drive an electric taxi.

Technology troubles

The biggest problem with electric taxis is maintaining a charge: long charging sessions eat into efficiency.

“We have to charge twice a day to have a satisfying income level,” said an electric taxi driver in Daxing District.

Wang Jingzhong, executive vice president of China Battery Industry Association, said there is a way to charge the battery within 30 minutes, but it cuts the battery life in half.

“Electric cars should be standardized to determine where batteries go and what size batteries they should take,” he said. “Relevant government departments are studying to draft a new standard.”

Professor Lin Cheng, associate director of the National Engineering Lab for Electric Vehicles at Beijing Institute of Technology, said there are new batteries that can charge quickly and last longer. These may cost 50 percent more and have a smaller capacity.

“If the taxis all run the same model of electric cars, we could create a system where they can swap out the batteries to keep driving,” he said. “Standardized batteries are currently only useful for larger buses and trucks.”

Specialists from the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission said electric taxis are designed only as convenient transportation within the region – mileage is of limited concern.

Yu Zhuoping, head of Tongji University’s School of Automotive Studies, said electric cars are also having safety problems.

“The electric car meets the same mechanical standards as combustion-engine automobiles. But compared to conventional vehicles, electric vehicles carry the additional danger of high-voltage shock and other electrical safety issues,” he said.

According to statistics from the China electric vehicle center for test driving, China’s electric vehicles lag behind the world standard by about five years.

Foreign countries have favored hybrid cars, which save a lot of gas. Only a few demo cities such as some in California are running purely electric cars.

Policy background

At present, the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission holds the position that regional electric taxis are “not-for-profit tools” for transportation within the outer districts.

But electric cars are at the forefront of the central government’s new energy strategy in the 12th Five-Year Plan. During the next 10 years, it plans to make heavy investments in electric cars and other new-energy industries.

The municipal government is already heavily invested in electric cars. New energy automotive pioneers such as BYD, Zotye Auto and Chery regard the Beijing market as their biggest opportunity.

Wan Jinpeng, head of BAIC Group’s department of management, said improving electric cars is essential.

“Oil, natural gas, coal, water and wood are the world’s most utilized energy sources. However, these five are depleting fast. Oil may only last for the next 45 to 50 years,” Wen said.

“China has been seen as the world’s top producer of and market for cars since 2009, although it is confronting a growing energy crisis and environmental damage.”

Beijingers may appreciate the pollution caused by combustion-engine vehicles better than anyone else on the planet. Finding a way to make new-energy vehicles the leaders on the road is an essential step in solving the city’s pollution crisis, Wan said.

This year, the city’s electric taxi fleet is expected to expand to 1,800 cars. By 2015, it will add another 1,000.

The China State Grid Corp will also open 1,700 public charging stations and 3,000,000 alternating current charging piles in 2015.

According to the government, it is not planning to deploy electric taxis into the downtown area: the downtown is too large for efficient charging.

However, it may add electric buses and sanitation vehicles.

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