Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Shanzhai Electric Cars in China

Last December, my friend Charlie and I visited the factory and headquarters of Great Wall Motors, located in Baoding, Hebei Province, about an hour's train ride south of Beijing.

While the factory visit and interviews I conducted on-site were very interesting and informative, the Great Wall people were understandably concerned about security. I wasn't able to take many pictures except for a few of their crash test course, which, at 250 meters is the longest in China.

After our time at Great Wall, Charlie and I returned to the train station at Baoding for our trip back to Beijing. Since we had about an hour to kill before our departure time, we decided to take a stroll around the train station.

Here we encountered an unexpected sight: a small store selling electric vehicles (电动轿车).

We learned that these small, nondescript cars are assembled in Shandong Province. They run on an array of traditional lead-acid car batteries. The salesman lifted the rear seat of the neon-green car revealing four linked batteries, and he said there are another six under the hood, for a total of 10. (Notice also how the door molding on the green car above doesn't quite meet between the front and rear doors.)

The cars he had for sale on the lot retailed for 16,800 to 29,800 yuan ($2,500 - $4,440), but he said he typically gave discounts. The setup is pretty basic: a car with a radio, the necessary lighting and windshield wipers. No heater or air conditioner.

He told us that these cars did not require a license to be driven on the road in Baoding, but that, without the license plates, it would be illegal to drive them outside the city. I didn't pursue this observation, but it seems to me that, without some kind of "agreement" with the local government, these cars should also be illegal to drive in Baoding. China's MIIT (the Central Govt) produces a quarterly catalogue with the names of every car approved for driving on China's roads. If a car isn't listed there (and these shanzhai electric cars most certainly aren't), they cannot be issued a license.

The friendly salesman offered to take us for a quick spin in one of his cars. Below is a video taken during part of our ride. The car was very quiet, and it took off pretty quickly when he hit the accelerator, but you'll also notice a lot of rattling when we hit bumps in the road.