I love electric vehicles, but they’re sure not cheap. For many people, a clean used EV is all that they can afford, and that usually costs almost as much as the cheapest new gas-powered cars. Understandably, this keeps many people with low incomes out of the EV game, and it keeps many people globally (who have very low incomes by US or European standards) away from EVs, too.
As we’ve written about quite a bit here at CleanTechnica, the lower cost of micromobility, like electric scooters and motorcycles and e-bikes, has made it a smash hit in developing countries. These smaller vehicles cost a lot less, with much of the cost savings coming from using relatively tiny battery packs. This gives even the more poor countries the opportunity to take advantage of electric transport.
But, there’s a big downside to things like electric bikes and electric motorcycles: they’re open to the elements. This doesn’t stop people in many countries from still using them in many cases, because they’re so useful and raincoats are a thing. I’ve seen this for myself in Taiwan. But, most Americans wouldn’t dare drive a motorcycle or ride a bike in the pouring rain. Even people who commute on bikes regularly would probably rather use a car on days with rain or snow.
But, there’s a compromise available, and it’s very popular in China: miniature EVs. These small vehicles are like an electric motorcycle or e-bike in terms of battery capacity and power, with many of them limited to low speeds (under 30 MPH) like a moped. This usually gives them regulatory advantages, like cheaper or no registration or insurance requirements (and this is true in many US states and European countries). But, most importantly, they give you most of the comfort and protection from the elements that you’d get in a normal-sized car, which makes them appealing to people.
A piece from earlier this month at The Autopian (a new automotive magazine run by former Jalopnik writers), sheds a lot of light on the Chinese mini-EV industry. The whole story starts in 2020, when Jason Torchinsky decided to take a risk on a cheap Chinese EV he saw on Alibaba for dirt cheap (by car standards). I mean, who doesn’t want to buy a new car for $1200?
Of course, small cars are nothing new to Asia. One thing that’s common knowledge in the US are Japanese Kei cars, or small and slow vehicles that aren’t subject to the expensive taxes that larger cars are subject to. Some enthusiasts import these little cars and trucks because they’re cute, fun, and even useful (especially the little trucks). China had something similar, with people using little cars with tiny engines to get around, especially in rural villages.
Making these little cars electric offered some serious opportunities for the makers of tiny autos. They are zero emission, which makes them more politically palatable for the ruling party as it struggles with smog and pollution issues. They’re also easier for owners, as you don’t have to give the little engine (that sometimes couldn’t) maintenance, like other two-stroke motorcycle engines. Some of them even have a solar roof, and it can charge them up because the little car doesn’t need much power, and this eliminates the need to find a place to park and charge it. Others have removable batteries you can take inside, like an electric scooter.
On top of that, it gave designers a lot more flexibility in design. Instead of having to build the vehicle around a little gas engine and its tank, the electric motor can go almost anywhere. This has led to not only better designs for users, but a crazy amount of variety. There are normal-looking cars and trucks, copies of big car designs (and their attendant trademark issues), and radical departures from automotive norms.
Governments in China have a weird relationship with these vehicles. On the one hand, local governments use them for all sorts of things, like policing and garbage collection. They’re handy, cheap, and fit places where other cars can’t. But, there’s also pressure from higher up to crack down on them because they’re supposedly unsafe and can make the country look poor, among other reasons. So, local governments have to walk a tightrope between keeping locals happy (elections do happen at the local level in China), allowing businesses to thrive, and keeping the higher-ups happy. It isn’t always pretty or consistent.
The industry itself is huge and varied. There are hundreds of manufacturers selling millions of the little cars every year, and those manufacturers buy components from thousands of suppliers. Manufacturers and suppliers come and go rapidly, making supply chain management a real challenge, but design flexibility makes dealing with these frequent changes more manageable than they are in the normal automotive world.
There are tradeshows and other industry events where you can build your own little car like the guy in the old Johnny Cash song (one piece at a time). Frames, drive systems, bodies, and everything else can come from anywhere (and often does in practice).
Companies tend to be small, but prolific. And by that I mean they make dozens of different vehicles (normal car manufacturers usually make less than a dozen models). The LSEV market has extremely varied needs, and these vehicles tend to be highly tailored to performing a small range of tasks. Delivery drivers (and not just food) have a large variety of differing needs. Some are 3-wheeled. Others have 4. Some seat only one, and others seat whole tour groups.
This tiny car industry may sound foreign to Americans, but that’s increasingly not the case. Not only can you order these little guys from Alibaba and get them delivered (in various stages of assembly) to your home, you can also get them from a growing number of domestic companies who are importing them and working out issues to make them less of a legal grey area on US roads.
Most US roads aren’t very friendly to vehicles that can only go 20 miles per hour, though. I’d imagine that for these to sell in large numbers, we’d need to see some that go more like 50 MPH. That wouldn’t make them highway capable, but it would cover the speeds you’d need to go to more readily navigate traffic. On the other hand, that usually means more regulations, registration, insurance, and many more issues. So, these vehicles might only work well going forward in very limited roles, like farms, private property tours, and neighborhood travel.
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