Just a few years ago, pretty much everyone (except Chinese auto industry insiders whom I interviewed) thought China was about to take ownership of the global green car market. (Here's just one example from the excitable Tom Friedman of the New York Times.)
In 2009 China's industrial planners announced plans to have 500,000 green cars ("New Energy Vehicles" or "新能源汽车" -- a combination of electrics and hybrids) on Chinese roads by the end of 2011. That obviously didn't happen, so last year, that same target of 500,000 was pushed out to 2015.
So how did green car sales fare in 2012? Overall, hybrids plus electrics grew a respectable 52 percent.
So while sales grew pretty well in percentage terms, it is clear that overall numbers are still inconsequential when you consider that 19.3 million vehicles were sold in China last year.
How do these numbers compare to the US? Green car sales in the US grew 73 percent to over 440,000 in 2012. (Includes electrics, hybrids and plug-in hybrids.) So China's aim of 500,000 sales may still be a bit ambitious when you consider that not even the world's largest market for green cars has reached that number yet. Nevertheless, just as China has eclipsed the US in overall vehicle sales since 2009, China can probably be expected eventually to eclipse the US in green vehicle sales too.
One thing that we can surmise from these numbers is that China has clearly yet to become the global green car powerhouse it had aspired to become. The reason is simple, and it also explains why China's auto industry -- despite having been relaunched over 30 years ago -- has yet to produce a globally-competitive home-grown brand. (Investigation of this question consumes a major portion of my book, Designated Drivers: How China Plans to Dominate the Global Auto Industry.)
The state-dominated structure of Chinese industry does not provide the proper incentives for innovative leadership. China has private automakers, but they continue to be marginalized in terms of state support and access to funding. The big state-owned enterprises (SOEs) continue to receive every benefit that central and local governments can hand out, yet they are still led by politicians who have no incentive to take risks or invest for the long term.
The green technologies being used in Chinese EVs and hybrids are, for the most part, purchased, licensed or copied from foreign automakers. This is not a recipe for ownership of a global market.
Green car sales data sources:
2010, 2011, 2012