Last year a friend of mine found an amazing looking electric mini-truck on a Chinese shopping website and decided he had to have one. With a $2,000 sticker price, he felt it was risky, but he wouldn’t lose form if turnover tires. So he embarked on one of the strangest vehicle purchases of his life.
China’s smallest electric vehicles
I have spent years watching the development of China’s electric vehicle industry. I’m not talking about Tesla imitators and other mainstream Chinese EVs. I’m talking about the quirky, weird and funny little mini-EV industry that China absolutely dominates.
First, this cute little thing turned into an electric truck that broke the internet. That’s what it is. Maybe mini-truck size (it’s just under 5:8 scale, or 11 feet long compared to the Rivian’s 18 feet). Maybe it’s affordable, because I can buy a garage full of these for the price of an F150 Lightning. But everyone seems to love the little electric truck, neighbors included!
He has since gifted the truck to his parents to use. There it performs all sorts of roles, from garbage collection to landscaping duty. Stop by on the right day and you’ll see his dad carrying his grandkids in the back hayride style. A speed of 25 mph (40 km/h) is not a problem for the type of off-road utility used by his parents.
The famous electric mini truck: what does it look like now?
I wish I could tell you how many miles we’ve put on the truck since then, but it doesn’t actually have an odometer. Based on wear and tear, it certainly looks lower mileage than that. Because the truck held up incredibly well and we were all surprised!
Sure, it’s only been around for less than a year, but if the comments section is any indication, most people didn’t expect the truck to last this long. But not only has it survived, it’s doing better than ever.
The hydraulic dump bed at the rear has proven quite useful for spreading mulch and topsoil, only getting better with time.
The hydraulic ram dumping feature is great and I use it all the time. But I think they made the hydraulic ram a couple of sizes too big.
Although it has enough lifting power, without enough weight in the bed to lower it, it gets stuck on the way down.
I have to pull on the bed a bit to lower the ram again. If there is not enough mass to push the hydraulic fluid back from the piston, gravity alone is relied upon. RAM has worn out over time and now it is much less.
I still don’t know what the lift capacity is, but I have about 500-700 pounds of dirt in my bed and it only lifts 40 pounds. Lift like a bag of soil above. So each instruction has a higher lift capacity than can actually fit in the bed.
Charging an electric mini truck
Although I paid for the largest 6 kWh battery the factory gave me, I don’t know what the exact range is. Fun fact: the $2K truck’s sticker price ballooned after another $1K for the big battery and $2K for shipping, plus stateside charges (more here ).
We typically recharge the truck every two weeks and it theoretically has a range of about 50 miles (80 km) or more.
But since the truck is used purely off-road around the property, it doesn’t go that far and range has never been an issue.
Charging a mini electric truck
It died once when his dad let the battery get too low, but he walked away with his Zachary 1500 portable power station. He put a few minutes of charge into it and then was able to drive it back home.
I found that I could solar charge a mini-truck with a set of four solar panels that allowed me to use a single portable power station and solar generator.
This is a cool feature, as many electric car chargers are too powerful for small portable power stations. The Zachary 1500 actually handles a 1 kW car charger easily (though not for very long). But smaller power stations can still handle the roughly 500-600W charger that came with our truck.
By running the solar panels at the same time as the truck’s charger, we can recharge the truck quickly enough to power the solar generator. That way it basically stays in the sun all day.
Solar charging my electric mini-truck
The truck’s systems are also working well. LED lighting did all the work except my dad accidentally broke one of the mounts of the spotlights and the day it arrived. It scraped as he drove under the tree he always vowed to clear, but this time the branches grew a little lower. Don’t worry though – a little repair work on the light housing and it’s good as new.
The air conditioning still works well, although we don’t use it very often. The car breathes better when you open the electric windows, plus the sunroof helps get even more ram air cooling into the cab. But in hot and humid Florida summers, air conditioning is a nice feature to have. The small size of the mini truck’s cab means it gets cold very quickly. We drove it for about 30 minutes before stopping to see if there were any problems running the air conditioner. We returned to find the entire windshield covered in thick condensation. So yes, it gets cold.
The suspension is still very rough, but that is likely because they have again made the units very large in size. The springs are like 400 pound coils and very stiff for a small truck like this. We bought some 125 pound springs to swap in and I’m looking forward to seeing how much that improves the bumpy ride.
We also picked up some bigger tires for the truck, which should give it better off-road performance. Stock tires are designed for the street. They do well with sandy soil and lots of grass around the property, but they are not ideal. New tires should be a huge improvement.
Is it street legal?
One of the most common questions we get from people is whether this mini-truck is actually street legal. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Many think we can slap the orange triangle on the back and drive off into the sunset. That would certainly be nice, but again, no. It doesn’t work that way.
It is the closest vehicle class that fits into the Low Speed Vehicle (LSV). It is a federally regulated motor vehicle category for vehicles that travel less than 25 mph (40 km/h) and are generally small-format vehicles.
But a common misconception is that a vehicle needs a 25 mph speed cap and seatbelt to be a legal LSV. There’s a lot more to it. All safety equipment must come from DOT certified factories. The factory that assembles the vehicle must be NHTSA-registered. There are required equipment such as a backup camera (our truck has it), a pedestrian warning sound maker (our truck doesn’t have it) and several other components. Again, they must all come from DOT-certified factories. Wearing seatbelts with a DOT label is not enough.
So while I’d love to use a truck on the road, that’s not really a possibility. Almost zero Chinese import vehicles currently claim to meet the legal requirements for LSVs, and in fact many simply do not. I hope that changes soon as I think there is a real market for these small and cheap electric vehicles for neighborhood and urban use. But in the meantime, they’re still capable enough for off-road use, which is how I use mine.
What’s next on the upgrade list?
I love this little electric truck, but it’s always better.
I already mentioned the new tires and springs that I will be installing soon. But I’ve got plans for a 50W solar panel for the roof. I think it’s perfectly sized for the top of the cab and doesn’t stick out like a funny hat. I can hook it up with a DC-boost charge controller and charge the battery directly. The truck is quite efficient because it is not very fast and can do about 40-50 Wh/mile. So for every hour of good sun, I can get about a mile on a charge. Less than five miles a day or less around the property means there’s no need to plug the truck into a charger.
I really need to put a bed liner on the truck. Every time I fill the bed and think of thin paint, I feel it. I am considering using a roll-on truck bed liner that I can apply myself.
In fact, if you have any great ideas for updates I should explore, leave them in the comments section below. And don’t say “installing a paintball gun turret on the back to technically convert”. I already want to do that.
So you want one too?
Every week I am inundated with emails from people wanting to get one of these electric mini trucks. I understand they are wonderful. But be warned, bringing one of these to the US is no easy task.
I had to import mine only for off-road use as it is not street legal for use on public roads. It’s legal to do, but it’s still tricky and has its pitfalls. I have heard of others trying to import these Chinese trucks and being stopped by Customs and Border Patrol because the truck is intended for on-road use.
Even if you don’t have that problem, there are tons of nickel and dime fees along the way. Shipping charges, port charges, loading and unloading charges, customs broker charges etc. It’s a mess.
There are companies that will import these items for you, though they offer no guarantee and make it clear that they simply handle the logistics – for a very healthy markup.
What’s next for my electric mini truck?
My plan is to simply continue using my electric mini-truck, push it hard for everyday tasks and see what it can do.
I’m sure it will eventually develop problems like any other machine. And when that happens, repairs require some ingenuity and manipulation. Here’s the downside of buying a vehicle without a local dealer to back it up. But that’s how people lived – when it broke they fixed their own stuff.