China’s dream of “leapfrogging” its electric vehicle (EV) industry has ran into some bumps on the road.
After reports of widespread abuse, the government has decided it was time for a complete overhaul of the generous subsidy system for EVs, leading to a massive 74% fall in sales of new energy cars in January. Among other factors, problems in the industry were caused by difficulties in developing the kind of high technology that could compete with EV stars like Tesla.
But many argue that China’s EVs should take a more indigenous path. Instead of trying to compete with the world’s automotive giants, China could become the champion of the anti-Teslas. Judging from the figures, it is already making great leaps towards that goal. Despite the lack of government support, China’s low-speed electric vehicles (LSEV) have experienced a boom, rising from only 23,000 produced units in 2009 to 688,000 units in 2015.
There are several reasons why these glorified golf carts have the potential to thrive in China’s environment. The most obvious one is the price tag. LSEVs typically cost between RMB 20,000 and 50,000 (USD 2,000 to 8,000), making them more accessible to the average Zhou. They are also easy to drive compared with automobiles: these low-speed vehicles do not have a gearbox, and can be driven by those without a driving license. For these reasons, they have gained popularity among rural residents and urban-rural fringe buyers.
Another more surprising factor is that the rise of high-end EVs could actually worsen China’s air pollution problems. Studies performed by Tsinghua University have shown that China’s current support for high-speed EVs is not as environmentally friendly as it seems. Unlike LSEVs, they require more energy, which in turn is provided by heavily polluting coal plants.
Although LSEVs are quite popular in the countryside, city-dwellers could also benefit by giving up their beloved plus-sized SUVs for something more petite. Major cities such as Beijing are known for their insufferable traffic jams and lack of parking space. Besides public transportation, the answer to this headache could lie in LSEVs, along with already popular e-bikes and e-scooters. Experts have pointed out that slower EVs with a smaller battery range are quite suitable for China’s cities, because they have denser populations and people live closer to their work.
“LSEVs and automobiles should share the road. If it’s completely outlawed, these owners will once again use tricycle vehicles. That would be a regression,” Qiu Kaijun, CEO of D1ev.com, a news platform focusing on EVs, told AllChinaTech.
The LSVE industry is still unregulated, but the Chinese government seems to be recognizing the trend, and has recently decided to formulate standards for producers. Whether or not this signifies a fresh start for China’s EV dream remains to be seen, but the popularity of these unattractive miniature cars has shown that LSVEs, and not the latest Tesla models, may indeed be the future of new-energy vehicles.
“China is regulating LSEVs with standards increasingly close to those of automobiles. This will empower LSEVs with more road rights. But for LSEVs, they may not necessarily need more road rights. Then lower standards than those for automobiles shall apply to LSEVs,” said Qiu.
Written with reporting contribution from Heather Wang
(Top photo from Pixabay)
Also read: The top 5 ugliest electric vehicles in China