During the National Day holiday last week in China, a pickup on a highway in central China's Hunan province made it to the front page of newspapers and websites.
SHANGHAI -- During the National Day holiday last week in China, a pickup on a highway in central China's Hunan province made it to the front page of newspapers and websites.
It was no ordinary pickup, but one camouflaged as a sedan. The police eventually discovered the pickup and fined its driver.
To ease congestion during holidays, traffic regulators in China let sedan drivers use highways toll free. The driver camouflaged his pickup to get the same treatment as sedan drivers.
Entertaining as it is, the incident offers a timely reminder of an outdated and unfair policy that has stymied the growth of an entire segment of China's auto industry.
When Beijing implemented the Road Traffic Safety Law in 2003, it let city governments decide whether to allow pickups to drive on their streets.
A loophole in the law let traffic regulators in most Chinese cities take a simplistic approach to pickups: They simply classify them as commercial vehicles and bar them from entering.
Such a rash practice has severely stifled pickup sales in China.
Fewer than 255,000 pickups were sold in China in the first seven months of this year, accounting for less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales, according to picacn.com, a Chinese website that covers domestic pickups.
And pickups are losing market share. Through July of this year, pickup sales dropped 4 percent as China's overall light-vehicle sales increased 8 percent.
Municipal treatment of pickups as commercial vehicles is not only rash, but unfair to pickup owners.
Under existing regulations, microvans, which are widely used in rural and suburban areas to carry people and goods, are considered passenger vehicles.
Like microvans, pickups serve the dual purpose of transporting passengers and merchandise. Why should pickups be treated as commercial vehicles while microvans are not?
This treatment of pickups is severely outdated.
A decade ago, pickups were used mainly by farmers to carry their tools and farm produce. But times have changed. Incomes of many Chinese families have increased significantly, thanks to decades of sustained economic growth.
If municipal restrictions on pickups are abolished, farmers could drive their pickups to go shopping in cities. Likewise, residents in coastal areas could use their pickups to tow boats or stow surfboards.
And they would have plenty of products to choose from -- as many as 16 Chinese automakers can build pickups with decent quality.
Great Wall Motor Co., a leading Chinese pickup manufacturer, also exports pickups to mature markets such as Italy and Australia. Global automakers might also sell pickups in China if those vehicles were allowed in the cities.
Pickups constitute a big portion of vehicle sales in North America as well as in emerging markets such as Thailand.
As long as these vehicles meet China's emissions and fuel economy standards, municipal traffic regulators should open their cities to them.
Otherwise, the anachronistic restrictions will choke what otherwise could be a vibrant segment of China's auto industry.