Thursday 18 January 2018

Not easy being green -- in China

Shane O'Donoghue took one of the cleanest cars in the world to one of the most polluted places on the planet

An early morning shuttle to the outskirts of Beijing did little to prepare us for what was to come. Traffic was light and progress was smooth. While we waited for the off, someone casually mentioned that the innocuous-looking factory we parked near produces more than 300,000 Mercedes-Benz E-Classes per year for the region. The scale of this country is breath-taking and numbers like that barely convey it.

A few hours spent in extremely heavy morning traffic was a more tangible illustration. Imagine the M50 at its worst during the boom times, packed with bank-holiday weekend traffic. Now factor in a few major accidents. Sounds tough, right? That's only the start of it. To fully understand the experience in China you then have to throw away the book called Rules of the Road and imagine that everybody in the traffic jam is in a hurry home to watch the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Ireland (I can dream, can't I?).

Each and every driver is vying to get ahead, no matter how. They don't stick to a lane for very long and rarely indicate when moving from it. However, it's not like they watch their mirrors to wait for a gap either, they just move out whenever suits. To say you need your wits about you is a serious understatement. Apparently even the main arteries around Beijing get clogged up outside of rush hour, despite the authorities' best attempts to limit traffic and car ownership.

I'm in China to take part in the ambitious Mercedes-Benz F-Cell World Drive expedition. It's to prove that fuel-cell technology is ready for everyday use. About 31,000km will be travelled in just 125 days by each of the three F-Cell cars taking part. It may seem slightly incongruous to fly all the way to China to show how good a new 'green' technology is, but there you go, would you say 'no thanks' to the invite because you're worried about air miles?

The F-Cell is essentially a Mercedes-Benz B-Class powered by a fuel cell -- and painted in a lurid green colour for this trip. In case you've forgotten what you were taught by the nuns in school about fuel cells, they combine oxygen and hydrogen to chemically create water. The reaction can be harnessed to produce electrical energy and the only by-product is water. Sounds ideal, right? More on that later.

Back on the road, all three F-Cells somehow made it unscathed through the first driving stint to visit a particularly impressive section of the Great Wall. Walking up steep sections of the famous landmark was an incredible experience, but just as remarkable was catching glimpses of other parts of it throughout the day in the distance. Not surprising really when you realise that it's said to span about 8,000km. That you can see it from space is a myth, by the way.

On day two we thought we might beat the traffic out of Datong, but no such luck. It wasn't quite as heavy as in and around Beijing, but it was even more chaotic. That was partly to do with a greater mix of road users. There's a distinct hierarchy at work, rather than any notion of rules, based on the size of vehicle -- and its perceived prestige.

Pedestrians rank lowest and they are completely ignored by drivers. In spite of that, they regularly step out in front of cars without any warning. It's a bit like driving on O'Connell Street in Dublin, though the crazies seem much older. Cyclists and scooter riders are marginally further up the food chain, but they're even less predictable and often carrying unbalanced loads. You soon learn to ignore them though, as they know they have to give way to cars.

The F-Cell is a good size for this type of driving. It's small enough to nip in and out of gaps, but it's not so small that drivers of bigger vehicles reckon they have priority. The foreign plates, Mercedes badge and bright green paintwork actually help too. We noticed that drivers of new, large European cars (usually in sinister black) were the biggest bullies on the road, and there was no retribution at all. For a while it seems that the constant beeping accompanying this chaos must be in anger, but actually the horn is mostly used as a warning to others that you're there.

Day three started with a shocking reminder of how dirty fossil fuels can be. The 'scenic' route we took passed through one of the biggest power generating areas in China. Sadly, it's also known as one of the dirtiest. The power generation is mostly thanks to burning coal, which is transported in (filthy) trucks and massive freight trains. The power plants look dirty enough with smoke billowing out of them, but you don't need to see the fumes to know they're there; you can feel it in your throat and the air is thick with smog.

But China is changing and this, gradually, will become a thing of the past. In contrast, there are more recycling bins than in Ireland and each new power plant aims to be cleaner than before.

Leaving aside the incredible experience of such a journey, the F-Cell Mercedes really proved itself. We drove it as we would have a regular car at the same speeds and without attempting to get the most out of each tank. The route featured everything from brand new motorway to chaotic broken urban streets and barren wasteland where the roads resembled a test course for an off-road vehicle. The car was comfortable, quicker than virtually anything else we encountered on the road and utterly reliable.

I don't want to give the illusion that we were alone in all this. I am no intrepid explorer. While we were often driving solo, relying on a rudimentary guidance system, the support crew was extensive, including two articulated trucks, two more carrying hydrogen, a doctor, several Mercedes Vitos, Sprinters and GLs and even a few GLKs for good measure.

There is no such thing as a hydrogen network in our part of the world, never mind China. Still, the F-Cell has a range of about 400km so it's not like we were attached by an umbilical cord to the hydrogen trucks.

That lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest hurdles for fuelling cars with hydrogen. However, the desire to develop one is there. Germany will soon have 1,000 hydrogen filling stations, which is a start.

As for the F-Cell, Mercedes is nearly finished a 200-unit production run and is well on the way to developing its replacement. That will be based on the new B-Class that arrives in Ireland early in 2012 and Mercedes hopes to make 2,000 examples. None of those will be sold or leased here, but it's a start. The aim is to manufacture 20,000 units of the next generation again.

When you see the vastness of a developing country like China you begin to understand how important it is for car drivers to reduce their carbon footprint. The fuel cell isn't perfect, but it holds a lot of potential.

Sunday Independent Supplement

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