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.


  1. I wonder what happens when the 10 lead acid batteries go dry? How long will they last? Does the owner get 10 new ones every couple of months?

  2. check out Wheego electric car potential to control global climate change

  3. @Stan, I think the batteries would last more than a couple of months. The concept is similar to that of a golf cart, except that the vehicle is heavier and requires more batteries. And, unfortunately, when the batteries do wear out, I suspect that they will end up in a landfill rather than being recycled. The car would work well for someone who just needs something to get around town in. Baoding isn't a big place, so they would probably run out of places to go before the batteries would run down. :)

    @amit thakur, thanks for the link. Whether these kinds of electric cars are actually helpful in slowing climate change depends on how the power is generated. If the power used to charge the batteries is generated by burning coal, then I'm afraid we are really no better off.

  4. We burn coal anyway, so powering the batteries isn't helping us much there, but it isnt creating another use to charge batteries which can be bad for us in the future. These car batteries arn't economical, so even though it's an electric car, it is no different to a normal gas car in its output. They might be made to nip in and out of town quickly, but there are always other trips we need to make that people will use this car for.


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