Exporting Used Vehicles to African Countries: Law and Policy to Promote Safety and Environmental Considerations

What happens to a used vehicle when we are done with it? Does somebody else drive it? If so, who is that somebody and where do they drive? Many used vehicles are exported to developing countries with a total of 40% of the world’s used vehicles spread throughout the African continent. The sheer size of the vehicle exportation market likely requires some type of international agreement or regulatory structure to promote safety and sustainability initiatives. The exportation of these vehicles is complicated from an environmental justice perspective. At first glance, it may seem intuitive that reusing these vehicles is good for the environment– after all we are using materials that already exist rather than making something with newly mined finite resources. However, used vehicles tend to be between 10 and 15 years old, which means they have higher emission levels. The public health and environmental consequences felt by these emissions disproportionately impact the low-to-moderate-income (LTMI) countries importing used vehicles at higher rates. Lead exposure is another concern. Older vehicles have less safety features and it is common for vehicles that do not meet the roadworthiness standards of the US or EU to continuously be exported to African countries. Safety standard violations are further exacerbated in communities with old or failing infrastructure.

The backdrop of this multifaceted policy consideration is the electric vehicle (EV) craze. While it is undeniable that electrification will be a considerable component of our fight against the climate crisis, we must also consider when and how to properly dispose of the vehicles these EVs will replace. The EU, US, and Japan all have regulations for disposing of an end-of-life vehicle, though it is estimated that about 35% of all annual end of life vehicles in the EU (which adds up to about 4 million vehicles) are not disposed of properly. Some of these vehicles are disposed of in unsustainable or unregulated ways, but others are exported to developing countries despite being deemed unroadworthy in their country of registration. In countries such as Ghana, between 80 and 90% of the vehicles on the road today are secondhand, the overwhelming majority of which are imported from Western countries, many vehicles in use lack safety features that have been mandatory in the US for decades including airbags or anti-lock brakes. The lack of safety features is of course coupled with the lack of emissions-reducing features.

In light of the widening global equity concerns, the UN Road Safety Fund is supporting a project, Cleaner and Safer Used Vehicles for Africa, to set minimum standards for the used vehicles exported to Africa. The output and purpose of the project are twofold: first, the program brings the exporting countries including the US, the EU, and Japan together to set standards for exporting vehicles while simultaneously helping the receiving countries develop domestic legislation about the age and quality of vehicles permitted on the road. The legal tools being developed are both international and domestic.

The existing regulatory frameworks have a lot of contradictions and very few enforcement mechanisms. There is little regional continuity in either importing or exporting states’ regulations. Using East Africa as an example, Kenya does not permit the importation of vehicles older than 8 years, Uganda sets its age limit at 15 years, and Rwanda does not have any regulation about the age of imported used vehicles. All three countries import over half of their used vehicles from Japan, with a whopping 95% of Kenyan light duty vehicles being foreign imports. “As a result, the fleets in Uganda and Rwanda are much older than the Kenyan fleet. Consequently, average fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are about one quarter higher than in Kenya”

The UNECE published a report in 2022 summarizing the project and sharing the existing literature that justifies the project’s $500,000 budget. The report concludes with recommendations for additional formal regional and international agreements as well as the participation of African delegates in the standardization deliberations.

So what are the substantive takeaways from the report, and how should that research inspire international regulatory frameworks? Well, first and foremost the project is an opportunity to get all relevant parties on the same page about the standards of safety and environmental performance. Including the voices of African delegates is important, but those delegates must also work with local governments or grassroots organizations to understand the mobility needs of a particular region in context with the public health and air quality concerns. Africa and South America are so frequently left out of the international discourse about regulating transportation technology because of the high number of LTMI countries and extremely rural areas with about 60% of the sub-Saharan African population living in a rural community. This means transportation options are scarce, people have less financial resources than average to pay for transportation, electricity infrastructure is often weak, trips are longer on average, and these communities are unlikely to be early adopters of technology such as automation or electrification. The aforementioned statistic about the used vehicle rate in countries such as Ghana being as high as 90% do not suggest the trend of later adoption in African countries will change soon. The intersection of these ideas leave us with the question, “how do we leverage projects such as Safer and Cleaner Used Vehicles for Africa in a way that quickly and meaningfully provides access to modern safety features and EVs but is also affordable?”. 

There is some existing research on the deployment of EVs and AVs in Africa vis-a-vis the used vehicle market. One conclusion has been that any age limit set by an importing country will increase the number of EVs in Africa and a younger age cap will correlate to quicker importation of used EVs. Though seemingly intuitive, this is a complicated point. As high income countries necessarily regulate their transportation sectors to be more sustainable and electrification becomes even more common, more EVs will be exported to Africa; EVs will eventually be commonplace in the secondhand market. This is beneficial because poor air quality in sub-Saharan Africa remains a threat. “[I]n SSA, transport attributable particulate matter and ozone [damage] were responsible for nearly 4500 deaths in 2015. Improved air quality results in a positive effect on population health, along with the associated economic benefits from, for example, reduced health care spending and fewer lost working days”. However, the increase in imported EVs is also an urgent problem because of unreliable and insufficient electric grids in some sub-Saharan countries. For example, Sierra Leone had an average of 53 unplanned blackouts daily in 2017. The importation of EVs must be accompanied by newer and more powerful electricity infrastructure or high-income countries will be effectively sending useless garbage to the global south (and ironically creating a massive carbon footprint to do so because one giant large container ship can produce about as much pollution as 50 million cars– imagine using one of those ships for vehicles that cannot be charged at their destination).

This blog would be remiss if it did not mention the relationship between vehicle safety standards and automated driving. The African Union Digital Strategy Information for Africa has proposed a peer review process for digital governance as part of an AI regulatory initiative. Unlike the EU, the AU has no continental regulatory authority for the deployment of AVs. This is the case for several reasons, but largely because OEMs do not innovate within the social and communal contexts of many sub-Saharan African societies. “The predicted impact of self-driving cars must consider the rights of collectives, peoples, communities and not just the driver, pedestrian, or other road users. This speaks to the African concern for a communal kind of worldview – a [community] perspective, as opposed to an atomistic individual concern for wellbeing. Also, manufacturers of self-driving cars (just like regular cars) need to reflect on ways that the technology may exemplify or perpetuate neo-colonialist ideas or constructions within African societies, and where possible find ways towards a non-hegemonic synthesis”. The eventual importing of used AVs could provide safer and more accessible mobility in sub-Saharan Africa so long as regulatory agencies create a framework that reflects the appropriate political and social values, and exporting states are required to comply with such regulatory demands to avoid making Africa a dumping ground for old Western cars that cannot or will not be reused. Though slightly outside the scope of this blog, it is also worth mentioning that there is a strong assumption that AVs will be EVs, so in a world where self-driving technology enters the secondhand market there are included implications for environmentalism and the energy grid. This blog will not explore the safety standards of used AVs as this is not yet reality, but it is likely another spec to be considered in setting age limits for imports. 

The bottomline of this blog is that, to increase road safety and promote sustainability in Africa, regulators must develop both domestic and international standards for the importing and exporting of used vehicles. With such a high percentage of used vehicles on the road in countries such as Ghana, establishing age limits and safety standards for used vehicles is crucial. Considering the slow but growing stream of EVs (and eventually AVs) that will enter the secondhand market also has substantial policy implications for electricity infrastructure throughout the continent. Tools such as the Safer and Cleaner Used Vehicles for Africa project are beginning to chip away at this lofty goal, but frankly local advocacy and constant community engagement are necessary to best understand the financial and political resources available as well as the regional social expectations that inform mobility needs. Used vehicle exportation regulation likely requires international organizations, but the experience of the people who will use these vehicles has to inform the regulatory framework to achieve maximum safety and sustainability. At the risk of making this post too long, I will leave you with the following quote from a recent article in the Third World Approaches to International Law Review:

“[J]ust like other technologies, [AVs’] use and impact within the continent will be different from other regions (due to sociological, environmental, historical, and other factors). These autonomous cars which may significantly reduce human deaths from car crashes in general may also unintentionally and systematically disfavour Africans in particular ways. One of the reasons for this postulation is partly because the dominant narratives around new technologies (and AI generally) so far do not adequately reflect African perspectives, including in the relevant ethical constructions and rulemaking processes. Also, major technological developments in the automobile industry have since shown very little or no representation and involvement of Africans in the development of cars (including with limited manufacturing and testing of these cars being carried out within the continent), and this has resulted in power imbalances – not only in terms of revenue generation (as most African states are only engaged as customers or consumers), but also in the humanitarian utility of the vehicles. With several accounts of how some other AI systems have led to the disproportionate disenfranchisement of Africans, there is need to ensure that autonomous vehicles do not perpetuate racism, inequality, negative systematic bias, and the marginalization of Africans”.

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