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Markus Appenzeller

When leaving the house in Shenzhen, one thing keeps striking me: I seem to only see green number plates. That needs a little explanation: in China, fully electric cars have green number plates, while the traditional blue ones are for fossil fuel vehicles.

20 % or around 800,000 of the city’s 3.9 million cars have been electric by the end of 2023. And the city government is determined to replace another 700,000 with the New Energy Vehicles (NEV’s) by the end of 2025.

Shenzhen today is one of – if not THE city with the highest share of electric vehicles. And that does not come as a surprise, but is part of a plan that is in the making for 15 years. In 2010 the first taxis here were electric. Since 2017 the entire public transport is electric. Almost all scooters have been electric since a long time.

Chinese carmakers that did not form part of joint ventures with western or Japanese companies understood early on, that they will not be able to compete at scale in the world market with combustion engine powered cars since they not only lacked technical knowledge but also the brand reputation. They focussed on electric cars as a future market where the expertise of traditional car making less relevant and instead knowledge they had was important: battery technology, software and consumer product thinking.

Comparing the offers of BYD, Nio, Li, Xpeng and all the other Chinese electric car companies with what the traditional carmakers from Europe, America and Japan bring to the market makes me think of the watch making industry in the 1980s. Rolex, Omega, Beaume & Mercier and many others made the most technically refined watches. They were real technical miracles using one of a kind craftsmanship. And then came Swatch. Within a few years, the traditional watchmakers were out of business, were forced to join to survive or resorted to the niche market of luxury goods for the happy few. I see a similar risk for carmakers. Most of the blue number plates I see, decorate Luxury western cars, and all advertisement for Mercedes, Audi or all the other brands try to sell their uber-luxury brands Maybach or Horch – all with traditional combustion engines.

One can like that development or not. I can feel the pleasant side effect of electric mobility in Shenzhen when walking the streets: it is a lot less noisy, sometimes even weirdly silent for a city of 15+ million people. Luckily, the occasional roaring Porsche or BMW passing by reminds you that this really is a big city.

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