When Elon Musk imagines the future of electric cars, he probably doesn't see city streets jammed with golf carts. The Chinese government does.

It's drawing up plans to regulate plug-in vehicles with maximum speeds of 70 kph. Included in that category are a vast range of vehicles that ply China's countryside and smaller cities, including single-seat delivery trucks and pod-like three-seaters that are as little as 1.3 meters across. Though not nearly as stylish as a Tesla (or even a BYD Qin), these motley vehicles are far more likely to propel China — and maybe the world — toward an electric future.

The boom in low-speed electric vehicles (or LEVs) is an unplanned disruption in a Chinese auto market accustomed to central planning. LEV makers are out-innovating and out-selling their upscale electrified counterparts. Production of LEVs is growing quickly, and sales exceeded 300,000 in 2014, according to state media.