Just how polluted is the air in China these days?
Consider Beijing, where on Wednesday the municipal government asked residents not to set off fireworks in celebration of the Chinese New Year, which begins on Friday, for fear the pyrotechnics would release sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbate the city’s perpetually filthy air.
While fireworks are a temporary concern, emissions from vehicles have emerged as the main culprit behind the "throat-choking" air pollution that plagues major cities such as Beijing. As a result, government officials have made a push to invest in private electric vehicles. And none of the new E.V. projects is more eye-catching than Kandi cars, which are dispensed to would-be drivers from multilevel garages that resemble giant vending machines.
Developed by Kandi Technologies and approximating Smart Cars, the tiny E.V.s rent for about $3 per hour. While they don’t go very fast—Kandi cars top off at 50 miles per hour—they can travel as far as 75 miles on a single charge. Drop-off works a bit like Redbox: When done with the car, the driver can return it either to the station where it was picked up or to one closer to the destination.
In addition to the two current garages in the northeast city of Hangzhou, the company intends to open 500 more over the next four years, including several in Beijing and Shanghai. The massive government-funded expansion, supported by more than $66 billion in subsidies, is part of China’s pledge to put 2 million E.V.s on the road by 2020.
While China is making a concerted effort to clean its skies—last year, three cities banned construction of new coal plants—dangerously high levels of air pollution remain commonplace.
In China, air pollution is measured by the Air Quality Index, a set of standards developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Levels between 301 and 500 are considered hazardous to human health, meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. In December 2013, the AQI above the eastern city of Nanjing was recorded at 354. Earlier this month, the United States Embassy in Beijing sent out warnings that the AQI had soared above 500, or “beyond index.”
The Chinese are no strangers to ride-sharing services: The country is home to 20 of the 25 biggest bike-share programs in the world, according to the Earth Policy Institute, with the city of Wuhan boasting twice the number of bikes as all of France’s bike shares combined.
If Kandi's electric car vending machine becomes as popular as bike sharing, maybe the Chinese will be able to ring in some future New Year without worrying about the effects their fireworks will have on the air they breathe.