So Many People, So Many Cars

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Jan 13, 2011

Seven years ago, Shanghai -- China's most populous city and historically one of its least car-friendly -- began banning bicycles on many of its largest thoroughfares, to better facilitate the passage of motor vehicle traffic, including the metropolis' burgeoning fleet of private cars. Though little noted in the West, it was an event of great symbolic meaning, and one that depressed me heavily. For it had finally become official: China, the bicycle-based society envisioned by Mao Tse-Tung in 1949, as the world's largest cycling nation, had gone car crazy, just as the automobile industry and the United States' Chamber of Commerce always hoped it would.

For a liberal, do-gooder car lover, who'll hop on his bike every couple of days -- in fine weather only, mind you, downhill routes preferred -- and manage to feel surprisingly virtuous about it, it was tempting to bemoan this development, though even it wouldn't prepare me for what was coming: China overtook the United States as the world's largest consumer of new automobiles a couple years back, and we ain't seen nothing yet.

While the withdrawal of government stimuli and sensible curbs on sales in traffic-paralyzed Beijing are expected to slow the Chinese auto sales fire, the 20 million new cars that carmakers expect to ship there for 2011 will easily dwarf the 12 million cars analysts seem to think we'll consume in the U.S., the world's former largest car market, if our economy's recovery continues. A silver lining for automotive nationalists: American brands are selling more and more in China-- albeit locally assembled, in most instances, with Chinese partners, so few U.S. jobs are involved. Nonetheless GM volume in China was up 29 percent to 2.35 million units last year, with Buick sales in this faraway and ancient land again exceeding those at home. Meanwhile, Ford predicts that 70 percent of its growth in the next ten years will come from Asia and Africa.

Figures like these, along with the Chinese market's 47 percent sales rise in 2009 or the further 40 percent climb experienced in 2010, are catnip to car manufacturers and financial markets. They don't waste time worrying whether growth is sustainable or advisable or what the implications of such growth might be, much as they didn't worry here in America when we all but abandoned our mass transit systems in favor of private automobiles.

So, while I hate to say it, it's probably best to put aside your dreams of a green future for the world, founded in clean high-speed railways born by societies that don't worship the automobile, the way we have done, to our detriment. Throughout the developing world, it's starting to feel like 1909 and the dawn of the Model T all over again as nation after nation heads down the same road we did, ignoring the past century's worst excesses in areas of air pollution and vehicle safety (but not all of them).

The major difference between now and then is that Ford is joined today by Volkswagen, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Fiat, PSA, Honda, BMW, Hyundai, Daimler and just about everybody else who can find a Chinese manufacturing partner as they slug it out for the opportunity to put each member of the world's largest potential drivers' pool in charge of his or her very own internal combustion engine.

Selling new cars to those denied Western consumer goods for near eternity is not exactly the world's hardest job. Nobody cherishes the consumer durables more uncritically; nobody embraces the brands more enthusiastically than those who haven't ever had access to them. These are what we call highly motivated shoppers. Because they're from the other side of the world, they're also free to draw their own brand associations and loyalties, a clearly good thing for marketers like Buick, which is perceived as an ultra-hip brand in China. Go figure.

Carmakers have been eyeing countries like China and India and their vast populations of potential customers for years. Now as show time descends, and the companies pile onto these selling stages en masse, hopes are high. Of course, students of history can be sure of one thing: No matter how huge any market becomes, overcapacity will set in. Price-cutting will commence and before you know it, the makers will set to gouging out each other's eyes, the way they've done it everywhere else. When the next cyclical downturns come, it'll only hurt that much more.

And, for all its trouble, the world will have hundreds of millions and one day billions more cars to contend with, along with all the emissions, helpfully spewed in places where massive spikes in coal and oil burning have already helped multiply the world's particulate and carbon dioxide loads. Can you spell global warming?

Yes, it's bad. But what can you do? The environmentalist in you wants to object to the idea of the rest of the world getting their motorized wheels on. But how can we blame the Chinese for wanting cars, any more than we can blame ourselves or any of the hundreds of millions of other Americans who already own cars and hope to acquire more. Who doesn't want cars? Don't do as we do, but do as we say? It'll never fly.

Still, if we can't blame Chinese consumers, knowing all we know about cars, we might blame the Chinese government. Not just for undermining a healthful, bicycle-based transport system or for dramatically increasing its national oil consumption so as to outstrip its once ample domestic supply. Don't forget they are dictators, so they can do whatever they want. It follows that they ought to answer for failing to demand that cars sold in their country meet the world's most up-to-date standards for safety and emissions and that their factories are allowed to pollute more than Western ones. C02 aside, Chinese authorities have permitted oxide levels of nitrogen and carbon monoxide many multiples higher than those we tolerate in the West. When you're talking about adding a fleet of hundreds of millions of cars, anything less than state of the art is not good enough.

For that matter, we can blame the Western carmakers when they don't bring their best safety and emissions technology and their best plant practices to the developing world.

But after doing all that, I figure it's hopeless.

Last summer Americans read about a three-month traffic jam, where Chinese truckers spent days in their rigs without moving an inch. Apparently, it wasn't unusual. I'm thinking if that sort of thing hasn't killed the Chinese love affair with the automobile, nothing will.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One