The sixth Michelin Challenge Bibendum, an annual competition to promote sustainable mobility that kicked off in Shanghai Oct. 11, serves as an appropriate backdrop as China looks for ways to head off energy-consumption and environmental issues resulting from the explosive growth of automotive demand.

The large number of fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) entered in this year's Bibendum Challenge — nearly a quarter of the 79 competing vehicles are FCVs fueled by clean-burning hydrogen — is particularly germane for China: The government and local auto makers are intrigued by the possibility the country, owing in part to its relatively meager petroleum-fuel infrastructure, could be well-placed to lead the world in adoption of hydrogen fuel for mass-market vehicles.

China's government and industry players know the issues must be addressed aggressively. This year, the country will have more than 27 million passenger vehicles on the road, says David S. Chen, vice president of General Motors China. By 2010, the number is forecast to exceed 56 million. At that time, automobiles are expected to account for 43% of the nation's total oil demand.

Meanwhile, vehicle exhaust emissions already account for 79% of China's air pollution, Chen says, citing one study.

China sees a future of hydrogen fuel solving both its energy-security and air-pollution concerns. Many auto makers also believe hydrogen is the ultimate answer to sustainable mobility. GM, alone, so far has invested more than $1 billion in research and development.

“Looking down the road, there's probably no other market in which GM's hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles are more relevant, or the opportunities greater, than China,” says Philip F. Murtaugh, chairman and CEO of GM China.

The Chinese government increasingly is concerned about the projections for the nation's ballooning energy consumption. Stephen K. Carlisle, vice president-planning, GM Asia Pacific, says there has been “a decided shift (of government emphasis) toward sustainability. They don't want energy to dictate their economy.”

Carlisle adds that in the next four years, China will see a number of people equivalent to the entire U.S. population migrate from rural areas to cities. The geographic shift certainly will raise the nation's gross national product, he says, but also will increase energy consumption.

China is “absolutely, deadly serious about energy security,” says Murtaugh.

GM plans to be the first OEM to profitably sell 1 million FCVs — and says China could play a key role in reaching that goal.

At the Challenge Bibendum in Shanghai, GM competes with the much-traveled HydroGen3 FCV and demonstrates the unique Hy-wire, which incorporates FCV technology with by-wire steering and braking. Chinese domestic auto makers also competed with several FCVs.

Michelin created the Challenge Bibendum in 1998, and it has emerged as an important barometer for alternative-fuel and high-efficiency automotive technology.

Although the Challenge attracts interest from throughout the industry, it is more than a gathering for theoretical discussion. Each participating vehicle runs a gamut of driving events to prove the technology is in a state of development sufficient to withstand the rigors of competitive driving.