When Elon Musk closes his eyes and imagines the future of electric cars, he probably doesn’t see city streets jammed with golf carts. The Chinese government does, though.
It’s drawing up plans to regulate plug-in vehicles with maximum speeds of 43 mph (more on that on the second page of this story). Included in that category are a vast range of vehicles that ply China’s countryside and smaller cities, including single-seat delivery trucks and pod-like three-seaters that are as little as four feet across. Though not nearly as stylish as a Tesla (or even a BYD Qin), these motley vehicles are far more likely to propel China – and maybe the world – toward an electric future.
The boom in low-speed electric vehicles, or LEVs, is an unplanned disruption in a Chinese auto market accustomed to central planning. LEV makers are out-innovating and out-selling their upscale electrified counterparts. Production of LEVs is growing quickly, and sales exceeded 300,000 in 2014, according to state media, far outpacing estimates of traditional electric car sales.
One reason is economic. In the 1990s, electric bicycles began appearing on Chinese streets, catering to an upwardly mobile demographic that wanted more speed and range than a normal bike but couldn’t afford a car. Today, there are more than 150 million e-bikes on China’s roads, leading one expert to call it “the single largest adoption of alternative fuel vehicles in history.” E-bikes aren’t an endpoint, but rather an interruption in “the transition from bicycle to bus and from bus to car,” as one study put it.
That’s where LEVs come in. In general, they’re cheaper — often much cheaper — than traditional cars. Some go for as little as $2,000. For consumers weaned on e-bikes, and accustomed to a limited driving range and frequent charging sessions, LEVs seem like a natural stepping stone into car ownership.
Yet much as rural Chinese adopted cheap mobile phones rather than wait for landline access, many drivers are finding that LEVs are actually all they need. For residents of smaller cities, a glorified golf cart that can take them to the market, a relative’s home or the workplace makes a lot of sense. LEVs are easier to maneuver through traffic and into tight parking spots. Retailers are finding that they work well as delivery vehicles, especially to meet the booming demands of e-commerce. And China’s growing population of seniors is realizing that a souped-up golf cart can meet most travel needs.
Already, those golf carts meet China’s long-term climate pledges. As battery technology and green-power generation improve, so will their carbon footprints. One study found that replacing diesel-powered delivery vans with LEVs significantly reduced traffic and carbon emissions. In a country newly obsessed with air pollution, that’s a major bonus.
All of which suggests that, with more than 600 million people living outside of China’s biggest cities, and car ownership rates still low, the opportunity for growth in LEVs is huge. And an explosion of manufacturers and hobbyists suggests many more innovations are on the way.
Even so, the industry has some problems to solve. Technically, LEVs don’t require a license and can’t even be registered, because the law doesn’t recognize them. That helps explain why they typically lack basic safety features, such as seatbelts. Regulations that set minimum safety standards, including where LEVs are allowed to drive, would not only legitimize a quasi-legal industry, but even help it thrive.
For now, Musk need not fear the competition. But he might very well learn from it.
By Adam Minter, Bloomberg
Volvo Wants Standard Plugs for Electric Cars
STOCKHOLM — In a bid to grow its market for zero-emission vehicles, Swedish carmaker Volvo has joined a German initiative to standardize plugs for electric cars, the company said Wednesday.
“To cement the increasing popularity of electric vehicles and ensure that customers fully embrace the technology ... a simple, standardized, fast and global charging infrastructure is needed,” Peter Mertens, Volvo vice president for research, said in a statement.
Since 2009, automakers like Volvo have introduced about 30 electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle models throughout the United States, China, Japan and Europe. The surge in popularity of electric and hybrid cars, which can use either petrol or electricity, has largely been due to increasing oil prices and environmental concerns.
One in five of all Volvo XC90s sold is a plug-in hybrid, according to the manufacturer, and in January, the XC90 was named North American car of the year. But the battery life of electric or hybrid vehicles has been a problem, as has the development of uniform standards for charging stations.
The Berlin-based Charging Interface Initiative, which Volvo joined, and which includes a number of German automakers and associations, has been developing a certification scheme for use by automakers around the globe.
“To really make range (mileage) anxiety a thing of the past, a globally standardized charging system is sorely needed. The lack of such a standard is one of the main obstacles for growing electric vehicles’ share of the market,” Mertens said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2016
China Working on Plan to Regulate LEVs
China is working on regulations for low-speed electric vehicles, including possibly classifying them as motorcycles, according to Minister of Industry and Information Technology Miao Wei.
Electric vehicles that have a maximum speed of 43 mph are currently exempt from registration, which has spawned a class of cheap battery-powered cars popular in China’s rural areas and smaller towns and cities. Crash-testing and other safety standards also don’t apply to these mini-vehicles.
Most of China’s larger cities have strict regulations on allowing motorcycles on their roads, meaning that classifying low-speed EVs as two-wheelers would effectively restrict them to the lesser-developed areas where they are popular.
Miao, who was speaking on Saturday after a meeting at the National People’s Congress in Beijing, didn’t give a timeline for when the regulations will be introduced. Delegates to the annual legislative meetings that opened in the past week have proposed that low-speed EVs be regulated as they are popular with consumers and represent an upgrade from battery-powered bicycles.