China is the largest market for electric vehicles in the world. Not highway-speed passenger electric automobiles but low-speed electric vehicles, which in China do not qualify as automobiles.

There are literally hundreds of low-speed electric vehicle manufacturers in China and they manufactured over 200,000 four-wheel low-speed EVs in 2013. This low-speed electric vehicle revolution has put over half a million EVs on the roads in China while nobody was looking. Even in China, most people don't realize how invasive these vehicles have become or how powerful the low-speed EV industry in China has become.

Low-speed EVs in China combine automobile design practices from the 1930s with modern manufacturing processes to produce the cheapest electric vehicles in the world.

The cheapest low-speed EVs sell for $2,000 while a top-of-the-line vehicle can sell for $12,000. Luxury models include power steering, power brakes, heating and air conditioning. Keep in mind that a cheap new gasoline automobile sells for only $5,000 in China. Low-speed EVs in China are usually based on a welded steel frame with a stamped steel body on top. These vehicles combine automobile design practices from the 1930's with modern manufacturing processes to produce the cheapest electric vehicles in the world. Bodies are stamped using low-cost, low-volume stamping dies and then cut using three-dimensional laser cutting robots.

An entire stamped steel body for an electric vehicle can now be tooled up for less than $1 million, which is incredibly cheap and unheard of in the automobile industry outside China. An entire metal stamping industry has grown up to service the low-speed EV market. Amateur car designers are now financing their own EV projects, creating some cars which just three years ago would have never seen the light of day, as you can see in our accompanying gallery.

The low-speed vehicle market has also fostered the growth of component manufacturers for electric automobiles. China is home to a half-dozen electric heating/air conditioning systems manufacturers and another half-dozen manufacturers of electric power brake systems. Five years ago there were none. This supplier growth will benefit China's electric automobile industry in the years to come.

Chinese Low Speed EV

Nearly all low-speed electric vehicles in China use lead-acid batteries and are powered by 1.5-kW to 4-kW direct current motors with a top speed of around 38 miles per hour. Low-speed EVs in China typically have a range of 60 to 100 Miles, depending on the size of the motor and the number of batteries.

Low-speed EVs are typically very small, designed for Chinese consumers. There are a few models designed to accommodate Westerners, but they cost more and don't sell as well in China. Smaller EVs with one seat in the front and two seats side by side in the back are very popular and can be as narrow as 3'8" (1.1 meters). Almost all low-speed EVs in China are built with four doors, the thinking being that if a car doesn't have four doors, it's not a real car. Plus, with four doors the owner can always go out and moonlight as a taxi if money is tight.

There are no government subsidies for low-speed electric vehicles in China: Chinese consumers are buying low-speed electric vehicles because they want to drive an EV.

The low-speed electric vehicle revolution has exploded in China's countryside, so most people living in cities in China do not know these vehicles exist. The industry literally grew up while regulators in the cities weren't looking. The market still has massive potential for growth: China has over 600 million people living in the rural countryside away from cities. There are over 100 million rural households in China, so the potential for growth is huge.

There are no government subsidies for low-speed electric vehicles in China: Chinese consumers are buying these vehicles because they want to drive an EV. There is also no government regulation of this industry, which is difficult for this American to comprehend, and I've lived in China for over 20 years. These vehicles also typically lack the most basic safety equipment – forget airbags, not ever seat-belts are included, but Chinese often don't like to wear seat-belts anyway.

Chinese Low Speed EV

With all the economic planning regulated by China's central government and the emphasis put on promoting electric automobiles in China, it is quite ironic how the low-speed electric vehicle market in China has blossomed without any subsidies or interference from the China central government. Technically these vehicles are illegal, but that has not stopped the industry's amazing growth.

Automobile manufacturers are pressuring the central government to clamp down on the low-speed EV industry, but EV factories bring jobs. With China's endemic pollution, government officials will jump at any solution which can reduce pollution while increasing GDP. Eventually China's central government will pass a law legalizing these vehicles, and then growth will be even more dramatic.

When will these inexpensive Chinese low-speed electric vehicles start showing up in the US? So far the market in China has been so strong there hasn't been a huge motivation to export. Only 14,987 low-speed vehicles were sold in the USA in 2013, so it makes sense to focus on China. Any American interested in buying one of these LSVs will need to come to China with cash in hand and compete with the local consumers.

The growth of China's low-speed electric vehicle market is very similar to the growth of the automobile in the US and Europe a century ago: not a lot of regulation, just a bunch of engineers having fun building horseless carriages, and creating incredible economic growth. For an American, it's kind of like going back in time.


Charlie Paglee is the CEO of Brannan Auto, an American automotive component engineering and manufacturing company focused on China, specifically on the electric vehicle industry. Mr. Paglee has more than two decades of business experience in China and speaks fluent Chinese Mandarin. Mr. Paglee is an electrical engineer who started working with electric vehicles in 1991. Mr. Paglee was the Vice President of China for Fisker Automotive and before that he was Employee Number 5 at Aptera Motors.


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  • 27 Comments
      Marco Polo
      • 4 Months Ago
      Hmmm... let's have a little perspective. These little vehicles are not new to the PRC, nor would they sell anywhere else in the world. The PRC government certainly doesn't 'encourage' such vehicles, and only some of the provincial governments turn a blind eye to the manufacture of such vehicles. All new industries have a period of early pioneers, and chaotic entrants, then undergo a period of rationalisation, during which the products mature, regulations are introduced, and the majority of early entrants disappear, leaving a few large makers. Most industries in the the PRC are experiencing a period of rapid expansion. The central government, and CCP tolerate such phenomena, for a brief period while dynamics are observed. However, sooner or later the vested interests within the Party will exert influence, are and regulatory control will be exerted. Outside of the PRC and maybe India, there will be no sustainable market for such oddities, just as none of the small manufactures of odd little vehicles survived in other industrializing nations. There will always be hopeful idealists who see virtue in such curiosities, but never enough to allow for commercial profitability.
        Warren
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Marco Polo
        You skipped the part where advanced industrialized economies run out of affordable energy, their industries move to cheap labor markets, cities go bankrupt, and their young people rent-to-own Chinese mopeds to get to their part-time service jobs. Oh yes, and the rich drive multi-thousand dollar electric limousines. :-)
          Marco Polo
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Warren
          @ Warren Yes, .....hmmm..., well I guess I wasn't taking into consideration those doomsday folk, who belong to survival communities in remote locations, hoping for the Apocalypse and storing enough guns and ammunition to start Armageddon. But, look around you,.... there's no lack of affordable energy. The cities that are bankrupt , are bankrupt because of incompetent administration, and social corruption. The citizens of those cities, have a ailment caused by a lack of leadership, and the belief that the government, not the individual, is responsible for how they live their lives, and for civic environment.
        skierpage
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Marco Polo
        "there will be no sustainable market for such oddities" Read the article, 15,000 Neighborhood Electric Vehicles were sold in the USA in 2013. Polaris GEM and some of the other makers are doing OK. The Renault Twizy isn't a huge success, but it's not a complete failure. People think their car has to do everything, but in a multiple-car household, why not have a runabout for many of your trips?
          Marco Polo
          • 4 Months Ago
          @skierpage
          @ skierpage You are correct. Polaris is an extremely well run company, successfully expanding into niche markets. However, 15,000 sales, to gated communities etc, isn't really going to make an impact on the sales of 16.5 million vehicles sold in the US each year. Outside of a few specialised communities, buyers of 'runabouts' , still expect vehicles to be fully road safety compliant and capable of being able to be driven on main roads, safely. If these PRC oddities had to become compliant, they become too expensive to compete. ( or sales of Smart would be in the millions). Renault's Twizzy, is a good example. With heavy government subsidies ( and government purchases) , the Twizzy managed to sell around 12,000 sales world wide, in it's first year. However, the following year sales dropped 70%, and this years sales are dismal. Renault lost a lot of money withTwizzy, but probably considers the publicity generated for it's electrification program, more than offset any loss.
        Electron
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Marco Polo
        @ "marcopolo" I think the real perspective that people need here is that your comments invariably have the interests of the oil industry at heart. So when your dismissive of this 200K units/year and rapidly expanding industry that probably just expresses the worries in the oil sector about developments that could have a significant impact on demand for oil eventually. Any such developments could be catastrophic for an industry that needs sky high oil prices to keep billions of investments in increasingly marginal oil reserves viable. So I can see how the oil industry is weary of this development but I can't see the Chinese government cracking down on an industry that seems to be very successful at realizing its goal to electrify personal transportation.
      Edward W
      • 3 Months Ago
      A number of electric car manufacturers in China actually produce low and high speed models that meet DOT standards and are exported to the US albeit in limited numbers. And yes they have the modern amenities and safety features such as A/C, seat belts and airbags. These companies can do this only after being evaluated and found to meet quality and safety standards but the cars being talked about in this article are obviously not them.
      CR7
      • 4 Months Ago
      Paging Ralph Nader...
      • 3 Months Ago
      I am the proud owner of a 2010 Wheego Whip low-speed electric vehicle I bought off eBay for $3,600 a year ago. Top speed 50 kph (35mph). It is one of those crappy Chinese-made glorified golf carts here. It is indeed badly built and has horrible suspension. It is also very cute, costs about ten cents to fill up by plugging in the wall, and gets free parking thanks to a City of Cincinnati program granting free parking to all-electric vehicles. This saves me $100/month on parking alone. In spite of its many flaws, it is very fun to drive. Never having to tank up gives me a strong sense of independence. I can cruise around the neighborhood whenever I want without paying for gas. The low speed is rarely an impediment because street lights, buses, trucks and gridlock typically throttle traffic anyway. My low-speed electric vehicle meets US standards, has heating/AC, airbags and a radio, and thus would be classed as a luxury vehicle that I got at a bargain price. Speaking from experience, I can say these vehicles are great for young Americans who NEED a car but can't or don't want to pay for gas. They are also good as "trainer cars" for kids who probably are not mature enough to handle a highway-capable vehicle. I am very, very happy with what I bought for $3,600, and more Americans should do the same.
      Warren
      • 4 Months Ago
      i fully agree that bicycles will again be in all our futures, if it isn't too hot to ride. The Model T Ford, and 2CV Citroen put more people in cars than all other cars combined. These were under 1500 pounds, 40 mph top speed, and cheap. Unfortunately, they were ICE powered. The extra speed and weight of cars since then has only contributed to waste and pollution, and added nothing to the real wealth of nations.
      Electron
      • 4 Months Ago
      It's like the opposite of the Tesla approach: rather than start at the top end of the market where high prices can absorb the extra cost of no compromise BEV they start at the rock bottom end of the market where there is a total willingness to compromise as long as prices are low. Fascinating. Like Tesla is working its way down I can see this industry working its way up.
        EVSUPERHERO
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Electron
        Using ZAP as a example, they have been working their way down for a long time here in the US. Should say UP but no ZAP is actually still heading down except for vapor ware. They went from selling a horrible NEV vehicle for 13k dollars in 2004 to nothing today. They will want 12k for these worthless vehicles, they give EV's a bad reputation here in America. I purchased a converted Yaris that has all the modern conveniences like air bags, AC , anti lock brakes, hwy capable, crash tested,145 mile range etc for 15k dollars We don't need anymore Chinese junk EV's here in America. Just buy a US made golf cart. instead. DC motors may work as long as they don't go to far or to fast. Put lithium in these vehicles and the motor controllers and the motors will burn out. Not worth the bunker fuel to ship these over.
      JB
      • 4 Months Ago
      And when these clog up the roads even more, they are going to wish they were back on there bicycles.
        Jim McL
        • 4 Months Ago
        @JB
        The article is clear that this is a rural phenomenon, are roads in the country side busy?
      SteveG
      • 4 Months Ago
      I am not sure electric death traps are something to celebrate.
        Frank
        • 4 Months Ago
        @SteveG
        Yeah...not to mention shoddy chinaese construction. Who knows some worker accidently energized the drivers seat and steering wheel...turned it into an electric chair.
        Warren
        • 4 Months Ago
        @SteveG
        SUVs are the real killers...of other road users.
          Warren
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Warren
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8taP4ZxpCqU&feature=youtu.be
          SteveG
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Warren
          I would imagine being hit by a semi to be far worse.
      BipDBo
      • 4 Months Ago
      This is what happens when the government gets out of the way.
        Actionable Mango
        • 4 Months Ago
        @BipDBo
        Aren't NEVs legal in the USA, or is it a case-by-case local law thing?
          Levine Levine
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Actionable Mango
          Everything that looks like a car, moves like a car, and smells like a car is heavily regulated. NEV and golf carts are regulated. And the best part is government always wanting some bucks through taxes and registration.
      Jim McL
      • 4 Months Ago
      Excellent news piece, the first real EV news in awhile to my mind. Is this evidence of rural electrification and few gas stations in the country side? I have the impression that Lithium batteries took off in electric bicycles in China, perhaps weight is more of an issue there while the ballast effect of lead acid batteries has some value for these narrow cars?
        Ben Crockett
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Jim McL
        Agree good read. It is articles like this one Autoblog Green should run much more often rather than fluff click pieces. I can see how these vehicles could be an alternative if they are cheap.
      Frank
      • 4 Months Ago
      I hope they keep those chinaese death traps over there. Id love to see those peform on the insurance inistitute crash test...prolly fold right up to the b pillar like a cheap accordian.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Given the traffic in and around Chinese cities, any EV capable of exceeding 40mph/65kph has superfluous battery power.
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