Back in 1714, somewhat before the advent of electric vehicles, Eustace Budgel wrote in The Spectator that “Imitation is a kind of artless flattery”. Although Budgel almost certainly meant it to mean ‘by accident’ or ‘unintentionally,’ the modern usage – ‘without skill or finesse’ – really sums up rather well at least some of the vehicles that grace China’s roads. China’s enforcements of patents and copyrights is notoriously lax, a factor that has allowed automakers there the chance not merely draw inspiration from, but to indeed outright clone other automaker’s vehicles.
But could cloning well-known, popular electric cars from outside China help chinese companies become automakers in their own right? Could the shameless plagiarism rampant in China today help Chinese companies bring their own cars to market in the future which could compete in the global marketplace?
Today, things aren’t quite at that point. While pretty much every western automaker (and every Japanese and South Korean one too) has some strategic alliance with a Chinese automaker to build or sell sanctioned, well-engineered, licensed copies of popular global cars to China’s growing middle class, there’s another set of companies seeking to step on the shoulders of well-known brands in attempt to set themselves up as legitimate automakers in their own right.
The cars helping them do that? Low-speed electric vehicles which, depending on your interpretation, pay expertly-executed homage to well-known electric cars from around the world, or are shameful, poorly-constructed knockoffs.
Some of these vehicles, like the Jinma JMW2200 sporting its massive 3kw motor, lead acid batteries and an awesome 50kph top speed, are without a doubt, truly awful. Looking like a pastiche of the BMW i3 on which it is clearly based, even down to some of the available paint options, it is quite astonishingly ugly.
If we’re feeling less harsh, we could argue as a low speed electric vehicle, the JMW2200 isn’t even really trying to be the BMW i3 from which its inspiration is clearly drawn. It just wants to use those mental associations with BMW, or perhaps pay homage to the automaker which made the kidney grille famous. But although there are precedents for such behaviour — we’ve seen plenty of low-speed golf carts designed to look like the Hummer H1, for example — the Qingzhou Da Jinma Motorcycle Corporation is creeping up the automotive chain. From a background in motorcycles, it has worked its way forward through three-wheelers and is now sneaking into car manufacturing by the back door.
Despite the colour scheme, the i3-esque front and rear views, and the general shape loosely matching; it is way smaller than the i3 and clearly not any competition. But out in China, low-speed electric cars are big business. Although officially there are restrictions on ownership, these small not-quite-a-car runabouts are proving incredibly popular. Moreover, the enforcement of regulations concerning proper ownership permits and paperwork is, well, as lax as the copyright enforcement.
With a claimed 120 kilometers (74 miles) range, these low-speed electric vehicles are practical for cramped cities despite often being equipped with lead acid batteries and a top speed that’s sometimes barely in double digits. And being electric? Well, that’s clearly a bonus in China’s notoriously polluted big cities — especially as China’s thrown down the gauntlet to the west, racking up megawatts of solar generation as Chinese industry churns out panels.
But as a Chinese automaker (once you’ve got down the fine art of building such vehicles) perhaps you can step up into the world of production automobiles. With companies growing at an astonishing rate, that’s just what many have done.
Take the Shenzen Greenwheel J0 for example — that’s J-zero, not Jo. It shows with careful artistry you can have a car that looks an awful lot like a Renault ZOE.
The obvious dramatic difference between the ZOE and the J0 is in the C pillar. The J0 lacks the curved cut-in of the ZOE’s rear screen. It’s a differentiation that ensures the J0 is officially not a clone or a counterfeit ZOE but instead is an own car in its own right.
The J0’s creators of course, argue that distinction ensures the J0 is entirely different to the ZOE.
Although somewhat elusive since announcement, also a trait not uncommon in Chinese automotive circles (and we’ll admit since our Chinese is beyond limited, making our way around automaker’s sites is somewhat challenging), the Greenwheel J0 seems to have zero specifications attached to it, making it hard for us to decide if it is intended as a full-size, full-speed car or another low-speed electric vehicle.
Given the company behind it has longstanding credentials in the low-speed electric vehicle market you might think the latter is more plausible. But then we read that its largest electric car to date — which has the catchy name of the GW16-A20L58-0 — allegedly hits a not unreasonable 140kph (85mph) despite having just a 20 kilowatt electric motor. Clearly, Chinese automotive engineers are well-versed in getting the very best out of every kilowatt of power.
Whilst we may laugh at a car that’s definitely not a Renault Twizy — and goes by a rather unfortunate monkier in English at least: Rayttle e28 — these cars, and the companies that make them will likely become less of a punchline as time goes on. Although many will undoubtedly fail, a few may become the car makers of the future.
And bfore we get too high-and-mighty with the Chinese however, it’s probably time for a reminder that copying cars is as old as car manufacturing itself. Even today, automakers have departments whose sole job is to buy competitor’s cars new off the dealer lot, strip them down, and try to reverse engineer their components for use in their own vehicles. In fact, automotive reverse engineering is an industry in its own right.
Indeed, many household automotive brands got their start in life by stripping down a competitor’s vehicle and xeroxing the design. The 1930s Morris’s 8 was produced by stripping down Ford’s 8 and replicating each part. Ironically, somewhat later Ford took apart Austin/Morris’s mini and determined they were losing around £30 on each car sold, which answered their “How are they building this for that little?” question. But the knowledge manufacturers derive, and the understanding of the engineering that makes or breaks a car, give these new automakers the skills they can later parlay into automotive success stories.
In China, that doesn’t seem to be the case yet, although it’s becoming more and more of the case every day.
At present, these companies seem to have a few main stumbling blocks: poor quality, difficulty exporting and intellectual property enforcement outside China.
Whilst the definitely not a Renault Twizy (look, it has doors! It’s clearly different!) might be acceptable inside China, most countries outside China would, quite rightly, view its more than passing resemblance to Renault’s hit two-seat runabout far more sternly.
But here’s the thing. Just as reverse-engineering (or copying, whichever way you look at it) helped now established brands get their start in life, these Chinese low-speed clones of popular electric vehicles are giving Chinese companies the skills they need to produce their own unique designs.
Of course, there are some hurdles for Chinese companies to overcome beyond plagiarism, namely the issue of quality, reliability, and international crash test worthiness.
Auto reviewers based in China are often somewhat derisory of the Chinese clone vehicles quality standards. Indeed, Chinese built vehicles today meet with the same challenges of British car manufacturers in the 1970s.
Flimsy plastic parts break, trim is ill-fitting, and shut-lines leave much to be desired. But as with the Korean, Japanese and Western manufacturers that preceeded them, Chinese auto makers are definitely improving, albeit the quality bar is somewhat higher now.
So whilst Hawtai may not be a brand that you’re familiar with, and the iEV230 might not be on your radar yet, it may be one day. With a 39.5kWh battery, and 140 mile (stated) range, it may not be world beating — but it seems to be offered with a rather special $21,000 price tag.
Assuming Hawtai can work its way past shonky quality issues, find an importer outside China willing to support the brand, and avoid the same mistakes made by countless other hopeful Chinese companies who have unceremoniously failed to enter the western market in the past, cars like these could, one day, become name brands just as Toyota, Honda, Kia and Hyundai have become.
So whilst we might debate whether the Youxia X really is a Model S clone or not? We can discuss whether its claimed Tesla Supercharger compatibility will come to fruition. And we can note with disinterest that Youxia are one of the few companies that seem to be taking advantage of Tesla’s open source patents — to produce a car that looks a lot like a Tesla — perhaps instead we should be looking to see whether any of these companies, who are more than willing to take advantage of other companies’ R&D, are going to one day end up outselling domestic manufacturers.
Would you consider a Chinese import? Have you brought over one of the few Chinese EVs to make it to the US or Europe? Let us know in the Comments below!
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