Beware of the Panda

On the roads of Chongqing the last two years, any regular driver cannot fail to have noticed a large fleet of green and white Lifan mini cars emblazened with the Panda-auto EU and panda face logo.

The brand name of ‘Panda’ doesn’t actually mean the mammal variety, as the animal itself in Chinese is 熊猫(Xiong mao). The two words of pan盼 and da达 indeed spell panda in pinyin, but they individually mean ‘to look forward to,’ or ‘anticipate’ in the word pan盼, and ‘arrive’ in the word da达. This is an interesting play on the names, though, using both Chinese and English interpretations of the term ‘panda.’

In the past, and in my experience, the most common suspects in traffic accidents were the yellow taxis. Time is money for the taxi drivers here, and this more often than not leads them to take risks in overtaking, switching lanes at speed with the tiniest of gaps available, and sudden stops in the middle of busy roads and junctions to pick up and drop off passengers.

That was the case, until the Panda fleet took to the roads.

The business model basically works like this. You download the official app and register your personal details. You choose a pick time and location, how long you intend to use the car, and where you plan to leave it. You’ll have to select agree on the terms and conditions, and pay a deposit. Once all the formalities are done, you can go the car and unlock it through the application, then it’s bon voyage!

Well that’s how it should be, at least. The harsh experience of seeing the Panda cars on the roads in Chongqing tells another story altogether.

Even after a relatively short time, it’s already quite rare to see a Panda car in anything resembling mint condition. They virtually all have scractches and mangled bodywork. Whenever one happens to pull up beside me, I often see the look of insecurity of a wannabe driver fumbling about while he locates the gear stick and gadgets inside.

In addition to the ubiquitous rear end collisions追尾 (Zhui wei) you see almost every day, I have passed Pandas cars which have been driven into barriers and central reservations. I witnessed a traffic accident where a saloon version tried to switch lanes without checking first, and completed scraped up the side of a BMW, ripping off the side mirror in the process. On another occasion, I saw a Panda car that must have sped off the road on a motorway exit and got stuck in the bushes.

The main two reasons for the number of accidents in my eyes are twofold. For one, not being the owner of the car means that the driver doesn’t have to live and deal with the repairs, so they are less inclinced to drive the vehicle carefully.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is that many of the people who hire these cars are so called ‘wannabe drivers,’ in my words.

By wannabe drivers, I mean people who can’t afford to own and maintain their own car, or particularly, inexperienced drivers who want to enjoy the thrill of the road, or gain some practice with less responsibility on their shoulders.

Personally, I haven’t fallen victim to a Panda car as yet, but whenever I see one, I religiously offer them the biggest berth possible, and breathe a sigh of relief once they disappear into the sunset!