Friday, September 3, 2010

US and China support for auto industries: not that different

A comparison of auto industries: China's government supports its auto firms in growth and development while the US government only rescues its auto firms from bankruptcy. (Right?)

For the past several weeks, I have been plowing through this nearly complete set of China Automotive Industry Yearbooks, tracing China's auto policy since the early 1980s.



Toward the end of the 1990s, I began to see references to a supposed US government program the Chinese call "新一代汽车伙伴计划" (literally translated: "new generation vehicle partnership plan"). My first thought was, they have to be making this up to justify their own intervention in the auto industry. The US government does not intervene in the auto industry -- or at least it didn't until it had to rescue GM and Chrysler last year. Before that, the only other time was to rescue Chrysler (the first time) in the early '80s.

After seeing several references to this program and another one they called "自有汽车" (Freedom car? Seriously?), I decided I had to find out what this was all about. What I learned was that the US government has indeed established partnerships with the former "Big 3" American automakers to develop new vehicle technologies.

The first one "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" (PNGV) was started in 1993 under the Clinton administration and, according to this article at Wikipedia, resulted in the development of some useful technologies that made vehicles lighter and more efficient. The program also resulted in diesel-burning cars built by each of the Big 3 that were able to get at least 72 miles per gallon. (You never heard of this? Funny. Neither had I.)

Curiously, this program was ended by the Bush Administration in 2001 (apparently at the request of the Big 3) and replaced with a new program called "Freedom Car". This new program dropped the focus on current technologies and began a push to make fuel-cell vehicles commercially viable.

In more recent times, I have become aware of funds have that been made available under a Department of Energy program to support the development of advanced lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, but my assumption had been that this was a one-off program put together under the stimulus program. However, as it turns out, I was wrong about that too. This program started in 2007, well over a year before we started to notice the economic downturn.

US government involvement in the auto industry, as it turns out, is not an aberation; it's quite the regularity. And it's not only about rescue from bankruptcy; the US government has been pushing all along for development of advanced vehicle technologies.

As is typically the case with Wikipedia articles, people with competing agendas are able to edit the pages to which I have linked above, so those articles do contain some bias. Still, it was interesting to discover that China isn't the only country whose government wants to see its automakers develop new technologies.

And I found it especially ironic that I had to learn about these US efforts from Chinese government documents.