This isn’t the first time Chinese media has looked at me with a mixture of amusement, pity and confusion, all stemming from the fact that I bought the cheapest electric car in the world and kind of love it. This is, however, the most I’ve felt like I’ve been associated with the “happy grandpa” nickname for this class of very cheap, low-speed vehicles, and that is giving me some complicated feelings.
Of course, I’m really just a weird footnote in this story, because the real point is that this whole category of low-speed electric vehicle, which is huge and widespread all over China, has always had pretty questionable legality, and it seems the Chinese government is starting to crack down on them more.
Vehicles like my beloved Changli go by such evocative names as “elderly walk-substitute vehicles” (really, isn’t almost any moving land vehicle, from a moving sidewalk to a Bugatti a “walk-substitute vehicle?”) or laotoule (老头乐), which translates to “happy grandpas.”
I looked up that term, and it also seems like it can refer to backscratchers, padded cloth shoes, or anything else that helps old people. So, for many of the old people I know, I guess I can use this to refer to a thermos full of gin.
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is reported to define this class of vehicle as
“...low-speed, four-wheel electric cars not meeting usual motor-vehicle standards and not included in motor-vehicle regulations.”
...which seems pretty accurate to me.
These happy grandpa vehicles are built by a bewildering array of companies across China, with a vast amount of styles and designs, yet also with what seems to be a large common bin of shared components.
Shanghai Daily talked to families with elderly relatives that use these vehicles, along with legislators and people who repair this class of vehicle. The story that comes out is that while these vehicles are not built to any particular standard and can be quite unsafe, they remain incredibly popular — in fact, they are growing in popularity.
Even with attempts to incentivize taxi or mass-transit for elderly people, the independence offered even by a slow, one-horsepower electric shed on wheels is desirable, and the old people love them and use them.
They’re told that police will ignore them by sellers, and while that has been generally true, Shanghai Daily reports that Shanghai police have been cracking down on the vehicles, checking for them around hospitals and supermarkets and I imagine other old-people hangouts, like bars where you can complain about things and places that server dinner at four in the afternoon. Maybe those are just American old people things?
It looks like there are efforts underway to establish standards for these low-speed, cheap vehicles, which is likely a good thing if this category is going to continue.
I don’t know if that will put an end to the ultra-cheap, crazy variety, wild west sort of environment we see now, but some sorts of standards should likely help everyone.
That said, anyone who wants one of the Wild West versions of these things maybe should buy now?