I have something of a weird, though maybe understandable, relationship with cars. I’m far from a car geek but I know my fair share about how they work and what differentiates one from the other; I can identify models from a glance.
I genuinely like driving and being able to get around quickly and easily. I also think cars are one of the more destructive human inventions, have utterly destroyed far too many cities, and that not enough people take the responsibility of driving seriously. Cars, I’d probably argue, are fine, but car culture is terrible.
This fall, we moved out of the city and needed to buy a car. I hadn’t owned a car in a decade, and bought my last car five years before that, so I went fully down the rabbit hole of what it means to be a car owner these days. I was thinking I’d come away with a late-model electric or plug-in hybrid, ended up buying my first-ever brand new car, a more traditional hybrid.
Probably the biggest change from the last time I bought a car was using a mix of online services to find the exact model I wanted, four states away, and then completing the deal entirely over text message. I first saw our car about thirty minutes before handing over a certified check and then driving it off the lot. It took about a month to fully trust the rear-view camera, and I dig CarPlay more than I thought I would, but overall it’s still … a car.
Maybe I’d feel the shift a bit more if I’d gone fully electric and plugged my car in instead of refueling it, but even fully electric cars still have most of the same problems as their internal combustion brethren. They still create traffic, take up too much of the space that should be dedicated to housing or parks or bike lanes, and still crash and kill people with impunity. A vision of the future where every gas-powered car goes electric isn’t exactly utopian.
So it’s interesting to see other modes developing, like the rise of tiny electric cars in China. These golf-cart-like cars exist in a legal gray area that don’t benefit from subsidies or battery innovations as much as they do from being incredibly cheap and easily built thanks to the local modular supply chain:
Having decided that the future of mobility is electric, the Chinese government has subsidized sales of standard electric cars since 2010. With close to 1.18 million sold in 2019, China accounts for just over half of electric-vehicle sales globally. Bill Russo, founder and CEO of advisory firm Automobility Limited, sees a “steady and solid rise” in China’s electric-vehicle sales generally. The country has set a top-down target for electric vehicles to make up 40% of car sales by 2030, and Russo thinks they’ll have no problem hitting this goal. Tiny cars, which first began appearing in the early 2010s, have more than double the sales of regular electric cars but have never benefited from subsidies. Nor do advertisements for them air on television — instead, they appear on Kuaishou, a short-video platform popular with people living outside China’s big cities. Alongside streamers selling plums by the thousands, and others telling viewers what long-haul trucker life is like, drivers show off their tiny cars. Su Hua, Kuaishou’s founder, has long maintained that his app’s users are not “cool,” unlike those on Douyin, the TikTok predecessor popular with China’s urban elite. Rather, they are ordinary — the kind of people who might be in the market for miniature cars.
As they don’t technically require licenses, tiny cars tend to be popular with migrant workers, who struggle to pay for driving lessons and other car-related costs. The elderly, too, find tiny cars attractive since, up until October of last year, people over 70 could not apply for a driving license in China. They’re also convenient for anybody who wants a car to pick up groceries or their kids from school: No tiny car is longer than 1.5 meters, and their speed tops out at between 40 and 56 kilometers an hour. They’re for the short trips of daily life, not for traveling from one side of the city to another.
Tiny cars are basically non-existent in the States now that most car manufacturers have exploited loopholes in emissions regulations that allow them to essentially classify “light trucks” the same as cars, and then market these monstrosities as safer and more aligned with the American lifestyle.
Even if we embraced smaller cars, they’re hardly a panacea to issues like traffic and street management. But it’s pretty easy to imagine a fleet of semi-autonomous electric cars, particularly in places built for such a thing (think The Villages), mostly taking over. Or urban design where you park your car on the outskirts of the city and are then instantly greeted by an electric cab or small bus that gets you to your destination quickly.