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The tough evolution of low-speed EVs

China has been discussing and doing research on the definition of newly-coined short-range pure electric passenger vehicles, but the final results are unpredictable, according to Jackton Lu, founder and CEO of Lojo EV Ltd. which is based in Weihai, Shandong Province.

At a recent hybrid and electric vehicle seminar held in Shanghai, Lu told CBU/CAR that the proposed standards for short-range battery EVs were much debated and have met resistance from conventional gasoline car manufacturers.

“Traditional carmakers, which are also developing and producing battery electric vehicles, are worried that the evolved low-speed EV products may squeeze their market share,” said Lu.

The proposed definition of short-range pure EVs refers to vehicles with a maximum speed of 80 km/h, a grading ability of no less than 20 percent and a minimum drive range of 50 km in urban conditions. Batteries should account for no more than 30 percent of the entire vehicle mass.

According to Professor C. C. Chan, president of the World Electric Vehicle Association, the Ministry of Public Security insisted that the minimum speed of EVs should be no less than 80 km/h.

Compared with the new technical standards of battery electric vehicles which were released on May 17, 2012, the major difference between short-range and regular EVs is the drive range: 50 km versus 80 km.

The research work on short-range battery EVs was about to conclude, according to a report by The research project is led by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and China Automotive Technology & Research Center (CATARC). It covers 12 low-speed EV manufacturers including industry leaders Shifeng Group and Shandong Baoya New Energy Vehicle Co.

“The research work has almost been completed but compiling of the research reports has not started,” said Zhang Lei, an auto industry policy researcher from CATARC.

Demanding evolvement

China’s low-speed EVs have long been considered as illegal “shanzhai” or knock-off vehicles, and have been accused by many as being unsafe, poor in quality and technology, and causing much pollution with the use of lead-acid batteries.

Although neither the National Development and Reform Commission nor the MIIT has officially prohibited the manufacturing and sales of low-speed EVs, they have not been included in MIIT’s Catalogue of Vehicle Manufacturers and Their Products, China’s official licensing of automobiles.

Low-speed electric vehicles do not present the future direction of China’s new energy vehicles and their development should be administered, according to Su Bo, vice minister of MIIT.

In July, China released the Energy-Saving and New Energy Vehicle Industry Development Plan (2012-2020), however it said nothing about the development of low-speed EVs.

“From the technology perspective, I don’t think low-speed EVs can bolster and lead the direction of new energy vehicle industry,” said Su, explaining that though low-speed EVs are driven by electricity, they are using lead-acid batteries which do not present any development potential.

Low-speed EVs have remained a controversy in China for the pollution caused by their lead-acid batteries. But such electric cars are much welcomed in small cities and rural areas.

“I would say it is better to administer their development instead of keeping one eye shut,” said Su, adding that it is difficult to completely shut the door as in some places in Shandong the low-speed EVs are massively produced.

Trial operation should be carried out on such low-speed EVs which are regulated by safety, environmental protection and entry management standards, Su said.

The MIIT is of the opinion that short-range EVs must meet safety standards and consider using lithium-ion instead of lead-acid batteries, according to auto industry policy analyst Huang Yonghe.

In the meantime, low-speed EV makers also are striving to improve their product quality to meet both consumer needs and national standards.

According to Lojo EV’s Lu, lead-acid battery-powered cars can only achieve a maximum speed of 70 km/h. Once crossing that threshold, the batteries will break down.

Lu added that this year orders of Li-ion battery-powered low-speed cars from foreign buyers are increasing in Shandong, where the low-speed EV development is most robust.

“To raise the speed limit of low-speed EVs may narrow down the market because they are born to the needs of the buyers who do not require a high top speed. We are also considering using Li-ion batteries, but the price will inevitably go up,” said Wang Hongjun, president of the Shandong Baoya New Energy Vehicle Co.

The lead-acid battery version of low-speed cars are priced somewhere around ¥40,000 ($6,340), but the adoption of Li-ion batteries will double the price.

Robust growth

Shandong selected five cities into a pilot program for low-speed EV demonstration a few years ago, including Liaocheng, Dezhou, Jining, Zibo and Weifang.

Though the development of low-speed EVs has not received support from the central government, Shandong provincial and municipal governments have done much to nurture the industry, including policy incentives and financial aids.

In 2009, Shandong released a low-speed EV administration regulation to locally legalize the products.

Though the Energy-Saving and New Energy Vehicle Industry Development Plan (2012-2020) does not favor low-speed EVs, which means their manufacturers will not receive special funds from central finance, Shandong provincial and municipal governments managed to subsidize the industry through special funds or government procurement.  

“There has been no formal subsidy for low-speed EV makers, and the support comes in the form of government tendering offer,” said Wang, adding that the care from the local government has consolidated their confidence in the industry.

After four years of development, low-speed EV manufacturers in Shandong are divided into three groups. The first group includes Shifeng, Baoya and Shandong Tangjun Ouling Automobile. The second legion consists of Shandong Bidewen Power Technology Co. and Shandong Taiqi Electric Vehicle Co. The third group is made of little known factories which only have 30 to 50 workers.

Statistics from Shandong Provincial Science and Technology Commission show that low-speed EV industry here is developing favorably with output in the January to June period reaching 44,000 units, a year-on-year increase of 74.8 percent. Product development is enhanced, together with product quality and safety. Equipment and manufacturing techniques are also improved.

The commission currently is conducting a survey and research on the manufacturing techniques, product development, technology innovation and management of local low-speed EV manufacturers. The survey is expected to be used as references for national policy making, according to an anonymous official from the commission.

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