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Why Tesla’s electric car could really work in China

2013-tesla-model-s_100412524_lYesterday, we reported that electric car maker Tesla has started taking preorders in China and set up a Weibo page. It seems clear that someday soon, Tesla’s electric car will be navigating China’s hazardous traffic patterns — and I could not be happier about that fact.

To be clear, I have no real personal stake here. I don’t live in Beijing anymore, and I certainly can’t afford one of Tesla’s expensive roadsters, especially at the inflated prices at which they’ll be offered. I just think the cars could fit a niche and actually complement China’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that could work very well.

The first and most obvious reason for this is that the cars produce no emissions, and China’s cities are crazy polluted. Yes, producing the electricity that the cars run on also creates pollution, depending on what sort of power plant is being used. Yes, switching to electric cars is not going to solve all of China’s pollution woes. But cars are a major contributor to the air pollution issues in Chinese cities, and it’s only getting worse as people continue to buy cars that add to the problem. If the Tesla became trendy, at a bare minimum it might help stop the problem from getting too much worse.

And Chinese society might be uniquely positioned to make the Tesla trendy. Car purchases in China are often as much about showing one’s wealth and status as they are about practicality. After all, what’s practical about buying a car in a city famous for traffic congestion and for having one of the world’s largest and cheapest subway systems? Yet people continue to buy cars as a way of showing off. Because of this, Tesla’s price may not be an obstacle; the car could become an attractive luxury item in the way that Audis have. And you can’t walk ten feet in Beijing without seeing an Audi.

Audis are often jokingly called “the official car of corruption in China” (a phrase that may or may not have been coined by Baidu PR man Kaiser Kuo in his previous incarnation as a columnist) because government officials so frequently drive them, which brings me to my next point: China’s government could and should adopt the Tesla as its new car of choice. Teslas are stylish-looking, expensive (but not Bugatti expensive), and at present quite rare, so they certainly have a lot of appeal. And I’m sure that the windows can be tinted jet black. What more could Chinese officials want?

Not only would switching from Audi to Tesla take some of the sting out of corruption when the cars are used as bribes or bought with ill-gotten public funds — at least it’s not contributing to the pollution anymore — but it would also virtually ensure that China would see a massive rollout of Tesla charging stations. After all, all those officials aren’t going to want to risk ever running out of juice. And if there’s one thing China’s government is good at, it’s rolling out massive infrastructure changes quickly.

I realize that at this point it may sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m really not. China’s government is objectionable in a lot of ways, but it seems perfectly-positioned to embrace Tesla and the electric car, and if it does, the whole country will be better off for it. That’s why I’m hoping Tesla succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in China.

(And Tesla, if you guys want to send Tech in Asia a test model or two to bomb around in, we would be fine with that!)



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