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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 low-speed electric vehicles because they want to drive an EV.
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.
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.