Unable to find a taxi or bus to my hotel from the Confucius Museum in Qufu, I had just about reconciled myself to a long walk back when an old guy driving a small red contraption beeped his horn from behind and asked me if I wanted a ride.
It was only when I got inside the cramped rear of it that I realized I was sitting in a so-called LSEV (Low Speed Electric Vehicle). These small battery-powered vehicles are mainly manufactured in Shandong province, of which Qufu is the capital, and are touted by some observers such as David Li and Clayton Christenson for their disruptive potential because of their low cost (below $5,000), ease of design and manufacturing, and multiple potential last-mile mobility applications. It is estimated that 1.75 million LSEVs were sold in China in 2017.
The primary manufacturing base is in Shandong province, where Qufu is located. During a later stroll around the city, I was struck by how many of them were around in a wide variety of color combinations and brand names.
LSEVs generally accommodate two people, one in the front and one in the rear (though I did see some vehicles holding four), and run at speeds of up to 40kmh. The vehicle I rode in just about managed to achieve that milestone as it chugged along the highway into the city accompanied by heavy vibrations.
Still, speed isn’t the point of these vehicles (neither judging by the cramped seat and limited leg room is comfort). The key benefit they deliver is affordable and convenient mobility in busy urban spaces as well as rural areas where public transportation services are limited.
Judging by the ride I had, LSEVs aren’t ready for prime time yet. Improvements are needed to improve comfort, performance, and robustness. Even more important, the regulatory environment needs to be sorted out to govern their usage and set appropriate safety standards for design and manufacturing.
This would take some imagination from the authorities, but given that they are already having to start grappling with the challenges of regulating electric bikes and scooters figuring out how to manage the use of LSEVs shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
No doubt this will take time, but as more and more cities ban traditional cars from their centers to reduce congestion and pollution, they are going to need to come up with new ways to take people from A to B and to deliver goods to shops and restaurants in pedestrian zones.
It’s still early days yet, but LSEVs certainly have the potential to enable these new last-mile mobility applications and services in a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.