Friday, October 24, 2008

Now I've Got Heartaches By The Numbers

Troubles by the score

A few months ago, sitting in a conference of respected (excluding me) Chinese auto journalists, I said: “How many car companies are there really in China? I hear two numbers. 60 and 120. What’s the real number?” They all shrugged their shoulders. As long as 20 years ago, auto makers prophecied that the world would have space for maybe 10 car companies max. Now in China, we can't keep track of them.

How many cars in China? Likewise a mystery. You’ll read numbers between 20 million and 150 million. Most of this is a lack of systems. They simply can’t track yet. Some is lost in translation. The fine nuances of “vehicles,” “motor vehicles,” “cars,” “passenger cars,” “private automobiles” easily turn into roadkill - especially when the translator makes only $200 a month and rides a bicycle to work.

The number I trust this week is 60-some million vehicles-with-more-than-two-wheels in China. That includes some 15 million three-wheelers and low-speed delivery contraptions.

Every day you love me less, each day I love you more

How many private cars? Last February, had two numbers in the same article: “February 29 ( - The total number of private cars in China jumps 32.5% to 15.22 million units by the end of 2007, according to Chinese government statistics released yesterday.” And, in the next paragraph: “By the end of last year, total number of vehicles on roads of China has reached 56.97 million units… Of these vehicles, 35.34 million are private cars.” Shen me? (Polite Chinese for "WTF?")

But the day that I stop countin', that's the day my world will end

Here is another nice one from last year: “Sources from China’s Public Security Ministry said that the recorded number of vehicles in use in China is 150 million in the first half of 2007, of which 53.558 million are autos and 83.548 million are motorcycles.” Hmmm … and the other 12.9 million? Rollerblades?

Be it as it may, China has 1.3 billion people (or 1.5, or 1.6 - nobody knows for sure) The G7 average is 610 cars per thousand people. The US tops the list with 740 cars per 1000 men, women, babies, convicts, and near-dead. (No wonder the market stalls when 3-garage homes go into foreclosure - it’s lack of public parking!)

Using the internationally accepted number of a market nearing saturation with 500 cars per thousand inhabitants, China has room for 650 million cars! Or 750 million. What the heck, a few hundred million more or less don’t matter.