18th March 2021. Cars | Repair

China’s tiny cars; Winning the right to repair

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

#1: China’s tiny cars

There’s a fascinating story by Lavender Au at the rest of world site about China’s emerging mobility category: tiny electric cars. By tiny, we definitely mean small:

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.

(Source: restofworld.org)

The market for tiny cars has grown up in the shadow of China’s large official electric vehicles sector, which is subsidised by the government and accounts for around half of global EV sales.

In contrast, the tiny cars market, which started to develop in the early 2010s, is not subsidised but is twice as large as that for the formal vehicles. They cost between $600 and $2500 and owners can charge them in the same way as they do their mobile phone. One core market is older people.

The vehicles exist in a grey space, as lightweight vehicles often do. They are not licensed, and can’t be insured in many parts of the country. They’re not advertised on television, but on one of China’s short-video sites. Sales are banned in some places, such as Beijing. Police sometimes confiscate them when they stop them.

The article looks at the whole phenomenon, talking to sellers, designers, people using tiny cars to run a taxi service. Tiny cars are plugged into a ‘last mile’ local economy. As it points out, there are parallels with the tiny combustion engined vehicles that appeared in post World War II Europe. And because the market is large, it is becoming more structured. Production started out in workshops, but has now spread into China’s agile and modular factory production systems.

One fear is that they might be banned by the authorities, but this seems unlikely since they are widely spread, especially in parts of the country that are less visible to outsiders:

Wang Jun, who designs tiny cars, has never been worried. “Just because they’re in a gray area, it doesn’t mean the government ignores them,” he says. They’re already everywhere in the third- and fourth-tier cities of Jiangxi, Wang’s home province. While there aren’t national standards yet, some local governments are attempting to regulate them within their jurisdictions. … [H]e believes that the government won’t want to undermine the industry, as, in his view, it tacitly approves of its existence.

It’s not clear if banning them would work, and only partly because of the size of the market:

Additionally, the tiny-car economy is now so big that any enforced ban on driving one would face formidable opposition. “You have to understand they are very scary,” Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab Executive Director David Li says, referring to the grandpas and grandmas who make up the tiny car’s target market... “They’re Mao’s Red Guards. Do you think they care about officials cracking down on them when they’re in their 70s?”.

Design of the vehicles takes six months, and a new model can ve in production in a year. As costs fall so designs get more sophisticated. Some local governments are encouraging the sector as a source of growth. Bigger players are coming into the market. The Hongguang Mini, a tiny car with a starting price of $4,500, was launged last summer by SAIC, Wuling, and General Motors and has been outselling the Tesla Model 3 in China by a factor of 3 to 2.

Indeed David Li, quoted above, throws some shade at Tesla:

“Tesla is a small niche player,” says Li. “What Elon Musk did was redefine electric vehicles on macho, Silicon Valley– programmer terms.”

It’s a story about a different kind of innovation, in other words. As Lavender Au concludes:

The next phase of mobility isn’t being planned from an office tower in Mountain View. It has begun, instead, with two guys in Shandong putting paneling around a golf cart because they think grandpas will like it and they know it will sell. It’s a car pitched to everyday workers, not venture capitalists. 

#2: Winning the right to repair

(Photo: Right to Repair Europe)

On of the themes in the work of Vaclav Smil, whom I featured last week, is how much we waste as societies. iFixit, which campaigns for repair, reckons that “at least 30% of electric and electronic products are discarded when they are still in a repairable state. This kind of rubbish is becoming one of the world's fastest growing waste streams.”

One of the reasons is that a lot of things are a lot cheaper than they used to be. (IFixit is quoted in the same BBC report as saying that the price of a new washing machine adjusted for inflation is between 10 and 20 times cheaper now than it would have been in the 1960s.) Another is that manufacturers make it harder to repair things. Embedded digital components and circuitry don’t help.

Hence the emerging campaign, in many countries, for “The Right to Repair”. France has been a leader in this. In 2015, according to Jeremy Williams’s Earthbound blog, it outlawed “planned obsolescence”, which it defined as “using deliberate techniques to limit the life of a product”. Now it has announced a ‘repairability index’. From 2022, product labels in some categories will display a score based on metrics such as “the availability of repair manuals, how easy it is to take the device apart, and whether you can get spare parts.” IFixit has reviewed the metrics that go into the French index and is positive about the way it is compiled. By 2024, this will extend to include a measure of durability as well. 

This could go wider than France. The UK says it will introduce a Right to Repair law later this year. Last November, the EU Parliament called on the European Commission to make routine repair of everyday products easier, systematic and cost-efficient. According to Next City, “It said that warranties should be extended, and that replacement parts should be improved and made more accessible, as should information enabling general repair and maintenance.” This could be done by extending the existing EU Eco-Design regulations. 

The same report included an interview with Roman Hottgenroth, who runs a repair shop run by the German town of Stilbruch. It mends items that are thrown out, if it can, and offers them for sale second-hand. But: 

Although often all [applienaces] need is a fresh battery or receiver, “Spare parts are hard to come by, and all the components are soldered, glued or riveted,” he says. This is why, while his employees can fix many products, many others are unsalvageable. “Because of their design, devices often break just when you try to open them.” In addition, there is usually no longer any provision for upgrading and adapting devices to new technical standards. “This should be banned,” Hottgenroth says flatly.

Update: Following on yesterday’s link about the paper on AI ethics that has caused Google so many issues, Margaret Mitchell—fired by Google—explains her view of what happened. (H/t to John Naughton’s Memex blog).


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