It's one thing to read the statistics on the rapidly increasing number of cars in China, or to look at charts and graphs of growth potential in the coming decade.
It's something else to be stuck in a Beijing traffic jam for 21/2 hours — on the way to an auto show dedicated to bringing even more cars to the market.
After years of writing about the auto industry in China from a North American perspective, I finally made it to China for my first visit in April, in time for Chinaplas in Shanghai and China Auto 2012 in Beijing. Granted, two short weeks in only two cities provide only the briefest glimpse into what the market is like there, but it expands my image of what is happening there more than interviews and discussions can do on their own.
I'm hardly the first to note the chaos on the roads as an early impression of China's auto culture. It's not only the number of cars that is hard to picture from home, but that the rules of the road seem to operate on a free-flowing system that flouts written rules. Scooters surge ahead on red lights, cars cut corners regardless of pedestrians who have the right of way, every highway on-ramp and off-ramp is treated as an extra lane.
A friend based in Shanghai was shocked one day to see a Westerner driving himself in his own car. No Westerner she knows, she said, opts to drive himself in Chinese cities if a driver is available. It's simply too hard for Westerners to navigate the streets and the traffic flow, she said.
What struck me almost as much, though, was the unexpected variety of vehicles. I'd expected small cars and inexpensive brands in keeping with the focus on China as an emerging market. Instead, there were mopeds piled high with packages sharing a lane with Hyundai taxies and Mercedes sedans. I knew that global car brands were on the streets and had been sold for years, but not that there would be so many luxury nameplates.
That interest in cars also extends to those who can't afford them. Yet.
On a day off, we headed out on a day trip from Beijing to see the Great Wall. As we drove out through city streets on a morning after a steady rainfall had cut the smog level, our guide — a recent college graduate with a degree in physics — lamented how hard it is to land a date when he's competing with other young men who have their own apartments and cars. He kept pointing to cars on the road around us.
A Chery, he said. That one costs about 70,000 yuan ($11,000). That Honda was 120,000 yuan ($19,000). An Audi, 250,000 yuan ($39,500). He knew the value of almost every car on the street. He asked what we would pay for a similar one in the U.S. and seemed surprised when I said I wasn't sure.
Maybe he doesn't have a car yet, but chances are, he'll have one eventually. And so will a lot of other people. Seems those traffic jams aren't about to ease any time soon.