The Great Race
1 The New Emperor and Wan Gang’s Eco-Wonderland
IT WAS something between a cotillion ball and a ritual war dance. Like the Beijing Olympics two years earlier, the Shanghai World Expo was a coming-out party for China’s communist leadership. Over the summer of 2010, 72 million visitors flooded the Expo. The government spent more than $4 billion preparing for the fair—not including new rail lines, roads, landscaping, and other improvements to the city.
China’s pavilion was a massive crown-shaped pagoda, which cost over $200 million to build and was packed with cultural treasures. The building loomed like a sovereign over the Expo’s international guests, and countries from around the world paid tribute in diverse currencies. The Swiss built a chairlift that suspended visitors on an aerial journey over Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis, and in the Expo’s French quarter priceless Impressionist paintings hung on display. Elsewhere, corporate sponsors showcased the future of clean energy and “K-pop” megastars squealed, crooned, and gyrated for the new emperor.
To anyone with the faintest sense of context, the Chinese government was sending a clear message: the Middle Kingdom was rising; it was to be respected and shown deference; it was building a new world order and a sustainable empire.
The Expo also represented a significant symbolic victory for one man, an engineer named Wan Gang, China’s enigmatic minister of science
and technology. The entire fairground was a canvas for his life’s masterwork: securing Chinese dominance in the global auto industry. China was about to become the world’s largest auto market, and Wan Gang’s obsession was to make its national champions internationally competitive.
Over the preceding decade Wan had enjoyed an improbable rise to power. Rather than joining the Communist Youth League as a young man or ascending the ranks through family connections, Wan had left China to study engineering in Germany, and made a career as an executive with Audi. After returning he had penetrated China’s highest circles on the strength of his conviction that one day soon China could lead the industrial future. China, said Wan, could dominate the twenty-first-century market for electric vehicles (EVs). All this would have been impressive in its own right, but the fact that Wan was not even a member of the Chinese Communist Party made it truly exceptional.
Behind Wan’s enigmatic smile—and he almost always seemed to be smiling—was an iron determination to break a century of dependence on foreign oil and Western technology. The ultimate goal was to leapfrog over Japan and the United States so that the world’s big markets for automobiles would import cars and factories from China rather than the other way around. To a nation just emerging from a self-declared “century of humiliation,” the prospect was irresistible. The 2010 Expo was a powerful declaration of intent: China was in the race, and they intended to win.
Against this backdrop, the EV quickly became a national hero—and a focal point of China’s technology ambitions. The Shanghai Expo was the culmination of a decade of engineering and imagineering under Wan’s research program at Shanghai’s Tongji University. Two years earlier, Tongji’s Beijing rival, Qinghua, had led a similar effort for the Olympics. But the demonstration in Shanghai was more than twice as big and vastly more complex. There were electric cars, fuel cell–powered buggies, and buses that ran on fast-charging “ultracapacitors.” Almost all of these were pre-commercial—meaning they were more science project than store shelf product. But for now, China
did not need to work out the messy details of building the industry—the consumer technology, economics, and business plans that would help it grow. Wan Gang and the others seemed to believe that with enough money and political pressure, those would come. What China needed for the Expo was a declaration of its ultimate potential—a road map and a compelling story.
General Motors and the Shanghai Automotive Industrial Corporation (SAIC, GM’s Chinese partner) were responsible for exploring the farthest reaches of this futuristic vision. As the country’s largest automakers and prominent corporate citizens of the host city they were under intense pressure to perform. They delivered. The pair presented an ornate, dizzying, transformational spectacle. China’s future cars would be smaller, smarter, faster, cleaner, safer, and sexier than anything that had previously existed.
Inside the SAIC-GM pavilion was the show to top all others. Visitors strapped into five-point harnesses as an IMAX-sized movie with computer-generated imagery flew them through a bright, crisp virtual reality. Electric pods raced through the streets at breakneck speeds. Stoplights, traffic jams, and even drivers were gone. By 2030, GM and SAIC promised, China would be animated by a living network of safe, efficient, zero-emission vehicles in constant communication with each other and the environment.
In this bold new world, a blind girl could race through the canyons of Shanghai in perfect comfort and safety, secure in her personal mobility pod. Rather than drive to work, the conductor of Shanghai’s symphony reviewed his scores and made last-minute preparations for the day’s performance. A pregnant mother made it to the hospital just in time thanks to a speedy autonomous ambulance. This was a machine as big as a city and intricate as a Swiss watch. After the ride, a curtain rose to reveal real-life EVs—which looked exactly like those onscreen—wheeling autonomously around the building. It was quite a spectacle.
For Expo attendees, this vision of 2030 was tantalizingly real—at least until they reemerged into the exhaust-laden smog swamps of Shanghai. Inside, skies were blue and the air was fresh. Futuristic
robots rocketed silently down highways lined by space-age wind turbines. But outside, the air was chewy with soot and skies were gray. The phalanx of electric cars and buses commissioned for the Expo stopped at a chain-linked frontier demarcating the boundaries of Wan Gang’s eco-wonderland and China 2010. Real life meant navigating manic waves of oil-burning SAICs, VWs, Audis, and Buicks. Indeed, the 100 million automobiles on China’s roads had become a distinctly mixed blessing. China’s megacities were stifled by putrid smog and gridlocked.
No doubt, this is why in 2009 China’s government announced ambitious plans to leapfrog the West in developing and deploying electric vehicles. In two short years, Wan Gang promised that China would deploy 500,000 domestically produced EVs.
But even in 2010, there were signs that this vision was faltering. Few analysts were ready to say that the emperor—or perhaps the debutante—had no clothes. But half a decade later, the contours of this failure were stark. Despite an intense government push to electrify China’s cars, the country’s industrial giants had fallen far short. China was the largest automobile market in the world, but its domestic EVs were a blush-inducing afterthought. China, with its double-digit economic growth rates, its 1.3 billion brains, and its $3.4 trillion in U.S. foreign exchange reserves, had aimed to “leapfrog” into the vanguard of automotive technology and dominate the race to build the electric car of the future. Instead, it struggled to keep pace.
Part of the allure of leapfrogging was the difficulty of simply catching up. The complexity of today’s auto industry should not be underestimated. The modern automobile is one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in the world. At the turn of the twentieth century, motorized cars were a novelty—they were finicky, dangerous, and there was a reasonable argument that the horse was a better piece of
hardware. But within a decade or two this had changed. After World War II, the level of industrial specialization required to integrate ever more advanced automotive systems grew exponentially. The British futurist Arthur C. Clarke once famously wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the complexity of an automobile had far outstripped the understanding of the common man.
Making an automobile that was strong, safe, durable, clean, and efficient enough to be globally competitive required legions of engineers, physicists, specialists in areas like fluid dynamics, harmonics, kinematics, materials science, and an increasingly large number of electrical engineers and computer scientists. A typical car had around 30,000 individual parts, and computing specialists were involved in everything from writing the software for the car’s new onboard computers, to building robots for factory automation, to honing the advanced computer-assisted design (CAD) tools that took the painstaking job of component design out of the physical hands of draftsmen and moved it onto digital screens. About 40 percent of the cost of a luxury vehicle was for electronics, computers, and software. A billion dollars might be spent on writing code before a single car left the factory floor.1
Building a modern automobile required ever-greater levels of precision. Sizing for pieces like fuel injectors and various control mechanisms had to be calibrated to the level of microns—about one-fiftieth the diameter of a human hair. What’s more, all these precision elements had to be designed to withstand enormous abuse, and integrated seamlessly into a package that could be shaken, rattled, crashed, frozen, and scalded for decades at a time over hundreds of thousands of miles. If one of these systems failed, the result could be fatal.
Although China had sent millions of students to the United States and flooded the American academy with aspiring engineers, programmers, and scientists, the country’s leadership knew it might take decades to reach global standards. Anyway, that race was already decided. Why try to redo the past? Why not instead spend that effort on the car of the future—an electric vehicle?
The “leapfrog narrative” was powerful, sensual, and compelling. But it was also hollow—like the futuristic concept cars often displayed at auto shows. Underneath a Ferrari exterior, it had no guts.
Today, China is the world’s auto behemoth. But it still lacks the expertise to be an industrial superpower. It is losing the technology race to smaller, better-organized, and more nimble rivals. Japan and America lead the world in developing the cars of tomorrow—a new generation of electric and autonomous vehicles. But that is only half the story, because China is not really losing to Washington or Tokyo. It is losing to tiny groups of strategically minded technologists and regulators in Sacramento and Kanagawa. In California—a state whose entire population is smaller than commonly accepted rounding errors for China’s citizenry—a clutch of indefatigable policy activists and techies have spent two decades grappling with Detroit, trying to force this revolution. And their efforts are finally paying off. In 2012, Tesla Motors’ Model S—conceived and built in California by the pugnacious visionary Elon Musk—was anointed “car of the year” by Motor Trend magazine. Consumer Reports called the “S” the best car it had ever driven. The all-American Chevy Volt was similarly acclaimed as Consumer Reports’ highest consumer satisfaction vehicle and repeatedly topped J. D. Power’s consumer appeal survey.
On the other side of the world, in Japan, this revolution was sparked by a different sort of iconoclast: a nuclear engineer at the sprawling Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) named Takafumi Anegawa. It was Anegawa who laid plans for the world’s first mass-produced consumer EVs. While Tesla has taken the crown for the world’s coolest car, Japan has raced ahead in building and deploying a people’s EV. In 2012 Japan manufactured almost three-quarters of the electric vehicles sold worldwide. By 2013, an American could lease a Japanese EV for less than $200 a month and fuel that car for a small fraction of the cost of a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle.
Today in Japan and America, the futuristic world of transportation portrayed by Shanghai’s GM-SAIC Expo is actually much closer than most realize. Not only electric but “driverless” autonomous vehicles are within sight. The transition to electric and driverless cars will
usher forth a step change in both quality of life and economic productivity and potentially be the most transformational social development since the World Wide Web. It will change the way we live and many of the fundamentals of the global economy. That’s why America, China, and Japan are in a white-hot race for the future of transportation. Indeed, the petroleum-free EV and what Forbes called the “Trillion-Dollar Driverless Car”—those autonomous mobility pods from the SAIC-GM Expo—are just around the proverbial corner.
Of course, there will be winners and losers. Some countries and companies will inevitably move faster than others. And part of this will depend on the sophistication of a country’s car, battery, and technology companies—it certainly does not hurt to have a giant like Google or Nissan as a national champion. The leadership of individual innovators, activists, inventors, and dreamers is also key—and a focus of this story. But success also depends on the role that governments take in strategic planning, and their competence in executing policies to encourage investors, banks, entrepreneurs, and businessmen to build the economy of the future and invest in sunrise industries like EVs.
A Brief History of the Global Automobile
Few technologies have been as economically important and transformative as the automobile. Cars first appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, assembled from extra bits of the bicycle and carriage industries. These wheels were mated with electric motors, tube framing, and steam or spark ignition engines. For the first half decade or so, electric vehicles were actually produced in larger numbers than those powered by internal combustion engines. Electric taxi fleets trolled the streets of major cities across the United States.2
These taxi companies witnessed speculative run-ups in valuation that looked like something out of the dot-com bubble. Thomas Edison was also in on the game. He—and many of his contemporaries—poured a decade’s effort and piles of money into developing a competitive EV. But by 1910 Ford had won. The advantages of liquid fuels had overwhelmed
the battery, and for a century the history of the automobile was the history of oil and internal combustion. Oil and its derivatives, such as gasoline or diesel, could hold much more energy for a given volume or weight than could any contemporary battery. Additionally, gasoline-powered cars could be refueled quickly, and that fuel was fairly easy to transport—though it was certainly dangerous.
By the 1910 model year, Ford was producing nearly 20,000 Model T’s annually.3
By 1927 that number had skyrocketed so that there was one car for every five Americans, and more than 50 percent of American families owned an automobile.4
Even during the depths of the Great Depression, automotive sales fluctuated between about one and three million units a year.5
With growth came consolidation, and by the 1930s the international auto industry was dominated by three giants: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.
Each of these companies ensured global ascendancy by harnessing the powers of oil, internal combustion, and economies of scale. Because their method of manufacturing was basically Henry Ford’s concept, it was often called “Fordism.” The strategy was to build one product in one color that was cheap, durable, and appealed to as wide an audience as possible. The momentum of this process came in the form of an “assembly line,” which moved chassis along an escalating series of workstations—where employees would attach a fender or fasten a headlamp—until the final product was complete.
That approach allowed Ford to achieve what one scholar called “low prices, which kept falling”—in other words, economies of scale through mass production.6
Ford’s prices were so low that the company sold not only to poor rural American farmers, but to exotic markets like Tokyo and Shanghai, all at very competitive prices.
Ford’s great rival, General Motors (GM), also practiced mass production. However, GM did not do so with the same single-minded zeal as Ford. GM was originally the amalgamation of many smaller automotive nameplates, which led it toward diversified mass production, product differentiation, and eventually planned obsolescence. This strategy was dubbed “Sloanism” after the company’s managerial genius, Alfred P. Sloan Jr.7
Like oil, autos became militarily important. In World War I, new weapons like the “cistern” (eventually known as the tank), motorized troop transports, and other weaponized vehicles proved decisive to victory.8
Three decades later, during World War II, America was clearly dominating the race for motorized wheels. Through this lens Japan and Germany’s decision to declare war on the United States is almost unfathomable: the Allies industrial hegemony was absolute. Combined, Japan, Germany, and Italy produced about 437,000 vehicles in 1938, while the United Kingdom alone produced 445,000. At the same time, the United States was producing 3.5 million automobiles.9
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. automotive industry became the beating heart of the “arsenal of democracy.” So vital were the auto companies to the war effort that federal agents occupied their headquarters—leading the aging and, by this point, slightly deranged Henry Ford to believe they were trying to kill him.
Chrysler was the largest tank producer of the war, and together Ford and Willys-Overland produced 2.5 million military trucks and 660,000 of their iconic “jeeps.” In total, the auto industry built some 4,131,000 engines (including 450,000 aircraft engines and 170,000 marine engines), 5.9 million guns, and 27,000 aircraft for the war effort—crushing the Axis against the anvil of U.S. industrial might and establishing the military prerequisites for a new Pax Americana during the latter half of the twentieth century.
After World War II, the market for automobiles roared and it fueled the astounding growth of America’s suburbs. But in 1965, Ralph Nader put the brakes on this unfettered expansion when he published the book Unsafe at Any Speed, which caused a sensation in its treatment of the dangers of modern cars. This as much as anything symbolized the beginning of an arms race between auto producers and regulators—in safety, efficiency, emissions, and quality—that continues to this day. Fixing the problems outlined in Nader’s book would not be easy.
From an environmental perspective, the most serious problem was emissions. For a long time, engineers did not really understand the
alchemy of internal combustion that dictated how emissions were formed. Since it was impossible to see—or even measure—certain aspects of internal combustion, the process was two parts science, one part artistry, and a dash of luck. From the 1970s on, government regulations forced carmakers to apply new rigor to this issue of emissions. Enormous progress was made in controlling toxic exhausts, dramatically improving air quality and human health across America and much of the industrialized world. New standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were so strict that engine specialists said EPA stood for the “Employment Protection Agency”—their work would never end. In California, the effects of pollution were particularly severe. In fact they were so severe that the state set a goal to end this incremental tweaking of the internal combustion engine by eliminating it completely. The heart of their strategy was electrification. In other words, California wanted to reexamine the battery and its potential.
Over the past eighty years, batteries had changed. But most were still based on the same chemistry Edison’s competitors used in electric cars before World War I—lead acid. The first electric vehicles from California were almost entirely powered by a new generation of lead acid batteries. However, by the mid-1990s, a more power-dense chemistry called nickel metal hydride (NiMH) came to market. This chemistry had a relatively long history, but from a commercialization standpoint, its fundamental breakthrough came in the 1990s from a Michigan-based entrepreneur named Stanford Ovshinsky and his company, ECD Ovonics.
Born in Ohio to immigrant Jewish parents in 1922, Ovshinsky was a consummate outsider. His father was a Lithuanian-born scrap metal dealer, and as a young man Ovshinsky himself had started his career as a lathe operator. Ovshinsky’s formal education went only as far as high school, but the public libraries were a fitful schoolroom for such a subversive genius. His self-directed study nurtured a deep streak of intellectual independence.
Long before the oil shocks of the 1970s, Ovshinsky understood the environmental and geopolitical dangers of relying too much on oil
to fuel an economy and set out to find alternatives. Together with his wife, Iris, he set up a “storefront lab” that eventually grew into the publicly traded company ECD Ovonics. At Ovonics, Ovshinsky invented a new family of semiconductors, hydrogen fuel cells, and thin-film solar cells. The Economist magazine called him the “Edison of our age.”
In the automotive space, his most lasting contribution was in batteries.10
Ovshinsky received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop his company’s NiMH technology. The Ovonics battery held significantly more energy than its competitors—it was “power dense”—and could dispense that energy quickly. In other words, it was “high power.” In many ways, it was a game changer and served as the basis for every hybrid electric of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
At the same time, a few manufacturers (such as Mitsubishi) were also beginning to experiment with lithium-ion batteries—which were originally developed in Exxon’s labs, and first commercialized in portable electronics by Sony. But that chemistry still had safety and performance issues to work out. It was subject to what one industry executive called “the old 80/20 rule, the last 20 percent of the progress takes 80 percent of the work.”11
They did not come to dominate the EV market until the mid- to late 2000s. By that point lithium-ion batteries had already become integral to laptop computers, cell phones, recorders, and other electrified mobile devices.
This new generation of batteries was a game changer for EVs. There were diverse lithium chemistries: lithium magnese–oxide, lithium cobalt–oxide, lithium iron phosphate, etc. While these were expensive and still lacked the energy density of petroleum, with a strong policy boost, some additional research, and mass production they held out the prospect of servicing 90 percent of the day-to-day transportation needs of the global public. With mass production, these batteries might also be economical in the future—especially if costly petroleum was pitted against cheap electricity.
Another boost to EVs came from the hybrid electric vehicle. The concept of a superefficient hybrid electric vehicle—a car that
recaptured energy, stored it in a battery, and recycled it to the drive train—had been around since at least the 1890s. In 1977, Earth Day founder Denis Hayes wrote that “[t]he physicist’s conception of the efficient vehicle is one that operates without friction. At a steady speed on a level road, it would consume no energy. Energy used for acceleration would be recovered during braking; energy used for climbing hills would be recovered when descending . . . car manufacturers could approximate the physicist’s ideal much more closely than they do.”12
However, it took a politician, not a scientist, to get the hybrid car off the blackboard and into the labs of the major automotive manufacturers. A Clinton administration effort sought to marry cutting-edge research from the Department of Energy’s National Labs system with the practical needs of Detroit. The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) aimed to build an 80-mpg family sedan by combining high-efficiency diesel engines with hybrid systems.13
Spooked, Japanese automakers took a leap of faith over the hybrid abyss.
Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s hybridized Insight both provided valuable technological learnings. But it was the Prius that truly took flight.14
In addition to technical knowledge, the cars also generated a potent “halo effect”—convincing American consumers that Japanese automakers cared more about the environment than America’s domestic manufacturers. In Japan, the effect was no less pronounced. For the first time, new college graduates ranked Toyota as Japan’s most desirable company to work for.15
By 2010, the Prius was Japan’s bestselling car, and by 2012 Toyota had introduced an entire line of hybrids branded under the Prius nameplate. The car’s success familiarized Toyota with the basic elements of EV drive systems and normalized the idea of battery electric vehicles for the international consumer. For Toyota’s competitors—American, European, and Japanese—the Prius became the “big green monster.” It was an industry standard against which they could not hope to compete and it nurtured an inescapable inferiority complex. By the mid-2000s Toyota’s dominance had compelled others toward a strategy of aggressive innovation to bypass the era of hybrid vehicles—and the internal combustion engine.
Henry Ford built his first “Quadricycle” in a tiny garage. But by the end of the twentieth century, the days of garage bench manufacturing were long gone. Building a world-class automobile was now among the most complex industrial endeavors of the global economy; building just an engine manufacturing line might cost $2 billion. Sophisticated automotive companies had two armies of engineers: one devoted to designing the cars themselves, and another entirely focused on optimizing the thousand-legged manufacturing machine synonymous with automotive production. For new pretenders to the field, such as China, breaking in would be a challenge. For all car companies, the technology leap toward electrification was daunting.
Winning the Race
The world is building a new energy economy. In the future, much of the investment and capital that would have gone to fossil fuels extraction and imports will be redirected toward manufacturing and services. It is not too much to say we are running a race for the future.
Today America confronts serious challenges in securing its place among a fiercely competitive field—one that will likely be dominated by rising Asian giants. But too much of America’s private sector rises and falls on the basis of quarterly profit reports, and many companies have abandoned the basic R&D that begets long-term innovations. The U.S. government is not doing much better. It is hamstrung by slow-moving institutions and contentious politics.
To dominate a twenty-first-century economy, to win this race, America will have to change—and to some significant degree that change will have to be political. America must learn to be goal-oriented, tactically flexible, and driven by long-term macroeconomic trends rather than short-term political or financial interests. In many ways such a philosophy is nothing new, but represents a return to the mode of operation that supported America’s economic greatness over
most of the twentieth century. With smart, strategic leadership, the United States can again tap into unparalleled forces of entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. In spite of recent challenges, America is not out. It still has the potential to lead the world today and for decades to come—and it sometimes draws strength from unexpected places.