“China has gone from having almost no EVs to having nearly half of the world’s passenger EV inventory, and far more in buses, trucks and two-wheelers,” Mazzoco said. “It was a bit of a surprise even for Chinese policymakers.”
At times, that means charging infrastructure struggles to keep up. Shenzhen, home to electric vehicle and battery maker BYD, provides an early case study. By 2017, all of the city’s buses were electric, and a year later, its taxi fleet was fully electric. At first, there were not enough chargers to meet the new demands.
Since January, government guidelines have mandated that every parking space in new residential buildings must be equipped with charging capabilities. Some cities have mandated this and subsidize the cost of adding chargers in older buildings and parking lots.
But overall, driving habits in China are different from those in the West. Hof said Chinese car owners are more reliant on public charging infrastructure than Western car owners. China’s two state-owned power companies, State Grid and China Southern Power Grid, maintain a network of high-speed charging stations along highways, while private companies typically install facilities in cities and villages.
In older communities, EV charging can stress the grid, and utilities have been reluctant to upgrade. Instead, they instruct charging providers to build charging stations where the grid is strong enough — locations that may not be convenient for drivers. But Hough explained that chargers along highways and at bus stops are frustratingly slow. Many outlets that advertise as fast chargers offer a 50-kilowatt charge, which can take up to an hour. Roadside stations should be equipped with 100-kilowatt or higher chargers, which can charge a car in as little as 15 minutes, he said.
Progress in building charging infrastructure in China may be fast, but cumbersome payment systems and broken chargers can still slow down travel. In 2019, Hoff drove a mid-size SUV, the NIO ES6 EV, 900 miles from Beijing to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. On that route, he recharged mainly at national grid points along the highway and private points in town. “Charging is a team effort,” he said, sometimes requiring multiple people to scan a QR code or call the station operator. At one point, his car had to be towed away due to a damaged charging station. Another station he encountered in Beijing was so underutilized that weeds grew among the charging piles. (The problem of poorly maintained stations is not unique to China.)
Chinese drivers are less likely to take long road trips like Hough is trying, which may reduce range anxiety as EVs become more commonplace. This is due in part to an extensive train network that includes more than 20,000 miles of high-speed rail. For example, a train from Beijing to Shanghai travels between cities in about 4 hours at a top speed of 217 mph. Hof takes about five hours by car from Beijing to Hohhot, and about five hours by high-speed rail. As a result, most people use cars to travel within cities or for short trips, and trains or planes for longer trips.
Rather than expect drivers to be plugged in and wait, some companies are experimenting with battery swapping stations. These jobs are a bit like car washing, where people drive electric cars with almost dead batteries. While the driver waits in the car, the robotic system replaces the battery in about five minutes. The concept has spread in other parts of the world, but it took off first in China, where it is popular with owners of truck and taxi fleets.
Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor of energy, resources and the environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said NIO, which in some ways aims to be China’s Tesla, has Battery replacement becomes a luxury service. The company currently has 949 gas stations in China and plans to triple that number by 2025. More than 60 percent of NIO drivers in China don’t buy batteries, but use its “battery-as-a-service” rental program, which starts at around $150 per month for a certain number of exchanges, with sites concentrated in major cities where NIO is popular. To further ease range anxiety, NIO offers permanent and flexible upgrades for higher-capacity batteries and emergency roadside charging.