Amid all the noisy confusion, the future waits in sounds of silence
On an afternoon at a bus stop in the business district in Shenzhen, China, the air is filled with the sound of chirping birds in a nearby park. The street is quiet, with the exception of an occasional diesel truck chugging past — holdouts against a future that glided in with barely a sound: an electric bus.
A woman browsing on her smartphone while she waited hadn’t noticed the bus creeping up. Not until the doors opened with a beep and a man barking boisterously into his phone stepped out did she spring into action and hop aboard.
Passengers scan in with their smartphones, paying through WeChat, the app developed by Tencent Holdings, the Chinese social media giant whose flashy 50-storey headquarters can be seen from the bus stop.
Every megacity can trace its history in increments of rising decibels. For most of them, the turning point was the Industrial Revolution. But in Shenzhen — packed with more than 20-million people and hundreds of factories turning out high-tech hardware — the quiet age is four decades in the past.
Back then, China’s answer to Silicon Valley was a collection of calm fishing villages across the river from bustling Hong Kong.
In 1980, Deng Xiaoping declared Shenzhen to be China’s first special economic zone. The wail of urban sound descended almost at once: cars, highways, delivery trucks, sirens, buses, factories, power plants, shipping facilities, trains and innumerable motorbikes.
Modern Shenzhen is multicentred, with clusters of walkable space, says Juan Du, an architecture professor at the University of Hong Kong who studied urban transformation.
The city experimented with infrastructure: highways, bus corridors and a subway. There are also bullet trains, ferries and a new airport connecting it to the world.
Because of how the city developed, with skyscrapers filling in the spaces between farm communities, about half its residents are urban villagers, who don’t require cars.
The new Shenzhen has a mix of electric buses, electric bikes and scooters, electric taxis and even electric rubbish trucks. The shift to electric vehicles, which China has been pushing more than any other country, has put Shenzhen at the leading edge of something unprecedented: the quieter city.
BYD Automobile Company is the new Ford of China’s electrified-motor city. The electric-vehicle maker, backed by big Chinese subsidies and a $232m investment from Warren Buffett in 2008, has eclipsed Tesla as the leading maker of plug-in electric vehicles.
The company almost single-handedly electrified Shenzhen’s fleet of 16,000 buses and is now working on the replacement of the city’s taxis and trucks.
At the company’s Shenzhen headquarters, more than 37,000 employees make parts for electric cars, buses and taxis. Most will be sold in China as part of the government’s master plan to become the world’s industrial powerhouse of what Beijing calls "new energy vehicles".
BYD’s founder, billionaire Wang Chuanfu, envisions China’s fleet, now at 300-million registered vehicles, entirely electrified by 2030. Policy-makers in Beijing are shooting for 20% electrification by 2025.
China’s push to go fully electric would give BYD a strong domestic foundation for its ambition to become a global brand. To that end Wang hired the actor and climate champion Leonardo DiCaprio in 2017 as a brand ambassador and began exporting its vehicles to the US.
BYD has inked deals to supply electric buses to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the transit authority in Long Beach, California, and the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles.
In August, BYD won a bid to supply all Georgia government entities with electric vehicles.
A $9bn credit line from China Development Bank, is helping BYD place electric monorails in Brazil, Egypt and the Philippines. But the crutch of government funding, which supported the company’s expansion, may not be around forever. Grants that once covered half the 1-million yuan ($147,000) it takes to build an electric bus in 2015 now cover a third of the cost. Shrinking subsidies are a serious threat for a company with big research & development costs.
One of the biggest bottlenecks for BYD’s success at home and abroad is finding the space for charging stations.
The company has had to get creative in Shenzhen, slapping solar panels on top of a parking garage to create its first taxi-charging station. As Shenzhen housing prices skyrocket to rival Hong Kong’s, property for charging stations isn’t easy to find. And then the stations have to be fitted to the grid, says BYD spokesperson Xiao Haiping.
At Shenzhen Eastern Bus Company, one of BYD’s three bus-fleet partners, the monthly electricity bill of 17-million yuan is one-third of what its diesel bill used to be. The company has 5,800 buses, which use seven charging stations. Most of the buses are charged at night, when electricity is cheaper, though they sometimes have to top up in the afternoon. Each bus takes about three hours for a full charge and has a range of 250km.
Another force pushing Chinese cities to an electric future is the government’s draconian antipollution measures. They began in 2013 with prohibitions called the Air Pollution Action Plan, which capped coal use, banned additional coal-burning capacity and limited fine particulate matter in key regions.
A new plan, published in July, set a target of 2-million electric-car sales a year by 2020.
Shenzhen put in place high fees for petrol-vehicle licences while offering free parking and tax incentives to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles.
The city has mandated that all new trucks be electric and that 20,000 diesel trucks be scrapped. Ride-sharing services are obliged to use electric-vehicle fleets, too.
"Electric cars can definitely reduce the noise," says Tao Liu, chair of Clocell, a company that created a sound map of Shenzhen’s busy Futian District to help the government tackle noise pollution.
But an urban cleanup has its limits. The Mawan coal plant, one of the first in China to use seawater to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, is inconveniently located in an up-and-coming area near electric-bus stops. It is a reminder that China’s electricity is still two-thirds coal-powered. All of those e-vehicles end up plugged into a dirty, noisy grid.
Shenzhen mayor Chen Rugui, a former Communist Party chief in Zhongshan, is tackling gridlock, a major source of noise pollution, with the use of heavy surveillance that seems more like an Orwellian spy state than an urban utopia.
The city’s traffic police bureau is working with telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies to use big data, facial recognition and video sensors to manage congestion and accidents.
Shanghai-based startup KeyGo Technologies uses an "acoustic camera" system to zero in on honking cars, so police can analyse whether the noise pollution deserves a fine.
Tao, whose company sells noise insulation to wealthy clients, expects electric vehicles will bring calm but not pure noiselessness. Electrics do make some sound, especially when they go fast.