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Old 10th May 2005, 09:49   #1
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Default A different kind of CR-V

I know this is different from the regular posts on Supercars and so forth. But I felt I should post this article.

I especially liked (and loathed) the part about how the CR-V's are subject to a visual test on the amount of black smoke they emit.

New Scientist presents The Filthy Truth About Diesel Mules

Article Text:
The filthy truth about diesel 'mules'

* 09 May 2005
* Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
* Mick Hamer

LOADED down with goods and livestock, China's home-grown three-wheeled vehicles are a common sight chugging along rural roads. These so-called "Chinese rural vehicles" (CRVs) are often held up as a triumph of appropriate technology. But now it turns out they have a dirty secret. A new survey reveals that they present a worrying environmental problem because of the amount of fuel they consume and the copious emissions they produce. The CRVs are so profligate that they are largely responsible for driving China's modern thirst for oil.

The rise of private motoring is often blamed for China's growing petroleum habit. "All we hear about is the proliferation of cars in cities," says Dan Sperling of the University of California at Davis, who led the team that has analysed CRVs' environmental impact for the first time. "Everyone forgets about the other 800 million people in rural areas."

China has some 22 million CRVs on the road, nearly equalling its number of cars and trucks. And as fast as car manufacturing is growing in China, topping the million mark in 2002, the country is today making nearly three CRVs for every car.

The problems these little trucks are causing was rumbled when the Chinese government commissioned a national energy inventory. It found a black hole in the figures, with consumption of diesel far greater than could be accounted for by the vehicles on China's roads alone. Now Sperling's survey (Transport Policy, vol 12, p 105) has shown that the CRVs' consumption neatly accounts for the difference. And the reason they were ignored is simple: CRVs never figured in China's vehicle statistics because they are classified as "agricultural machinery".

It gets worse. The CRVs are so inefficient that they produce as much pollution as all the conventional vehicles in China and account for a quarter of its diesel consumption. This makes them "a pretty significant part of China's greenhouse gas emissions," Sperling says.

"It's a bit of a dilemma," says Mark Radka, head of energy at the UN Environment Programme in Paris. "It's appropriate technology, and that's good for China. But the CRVs' poor efficiency is a problem."

The CRV dates back to a failed plan to industrialise China's rural areas in the 1960s. The surplus machinery was redirected to building a replacement for mules as the workhorse of rural transport, and so the cheap and basic CRV was born. The growth in the number of these vehicles over the past 25 years has been spectacular (see Graph). The most common model has three wheels, though there are also two and four-wheeled versions. They are simple enough for farmers to put them together themselves, although about half are assembled by three major companies.

Most CRVs have a single-cylinder diesel engine, originally designed for use on a stationary agricultural machine. It struggles to reach a top speed of 50 kilometres per hour, but at $300 it is cheap, and it is reliable too. Maintenance? Just change the drive belt once a year.

CRVs are largely exempt from the environmental regulations that apply to other vehicles, and they are so polluting that they are banned from major cities. In rural areas they are subject to a simple visual test on the amount of black smoke they emit, but the limit is rarely enforced. A government estimate puts their emissions per litre of fuel at twice that of trucks.

The future of CRVs is unclear. With China now a member of the World Trade Organization they could find a ready export market elsewhere in Asia. The only other country to produce this type of vehicle in large numbers is India. "It could go one of two ways," says Sperling. "Either the government could force the industry to make their vehicles more efficient, or they could discourage CRVs and concentrate on conventional vehicles."

CRVs could easily be made more economical and less polluting by tweaking the engine to improve combustion efficiency, Sperling argues. "You would need just a little technology transfer to halve emissions and to achieve a 50 per cent improvement in energy consumption." With changes like these, the CRV could become as important to China's development as the Model T Ford was to America's, he says. "I think that's a desirable strategy for China."
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