California's latest 'car' trend: golf carts for the road

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Glen Gerson is zipping down Main Street in what may be the perfect vehicle for this quintessential California beach community.

The "car" has a plexiglass top that lets in the omnipresent sun. It doesn't have sides. In fact, riding in the vehicle may be the ultimate alfresco driving experience: It's like a go-cart for adults – perfect for Mr. Gerson to keep his tan, already as deep-toned as a saddle, in good shape. Oh, and it doesn't pollute.

"Nothing else that's come out in the last 10 years is this much fun," says Gerson, who runs a special-events business here.

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Gerson's car is a redesigned golf cart that operates on roadways. It has headlights, blinkers, seatbelts, and a windshield. It whirs along at 25 m.p.h. Where the clubs usually go is a snap-on trunk that looks like a washtub.

Depending on whom you ask, the vehicle is either the latest transportation revolution from California – the fount of American transportation revolutions – or one more whacky thing to come out of a state with too much guava juice. Then, too, some think it is simply a desperate attempt by automakers to circumvent the nation's most radical environmental regulation.

The truth might be some version of all three.

The "Neighborhood Electric Vehicles," as they're called, are far more expensive than a golf cart: At $8,000, they're almost twice what your average links lounger pays. The vehicles run on batteries, carry license plates, and can be legally operated on thoroughfares with speed limits up to 35 miles per hour – at least for now.

For years, many seniors in Sun Belt retirement communities have zipped around in golf carts. But the NEV "revolution" takes the concept a step farther. As Dan Sturges, a transportation consultant who came up with the design for the NEV, sees it, they can be used as feeder vehicles from homes to public transportation such as trains, van pools, or car sharing.

The idea isn't to get rid of traditional cars, just to provide an alternative for short, local trips – and thus reduce the number of regular cars on the road. NEVs take up one-quarter of the road space of a traditional vehicle.

Californians will likely be seeing more of them. The question is whether they will ever become more than a novelty vehicle. Certainly, the pollution-free aspect appeals to many green-minded Californians. The vehicles also strike a chord with those who subscribe to the "simplicity" movement. As a second car, they're also less expensive.

"NEVs solve a limited problem and could be part of a long-term solution," says Geoff Wardle, a transportation expert at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

On a recent weekend, one is parked on the curb in tony San Anselmo, Calif., just north of San Francisco, toting two teenage girls in the back seat. The GEM (the brand sold by Daimler Chrysler) carries regular-issue license plates. The girls, who are waiting for their mother, aren't forthcoming about how they like the car. But the open-sided design does produce an informal, if less than Volvo-safe, jaunt to the neighborhood store.

Seven NEVs nest behind Gerson's Victorian event hall in Santa Monica. "I saw one and just loved it," says Gerson, an affable man in a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy boots, as he wheels one nose-first into a parallel parking place on Main Street. "Look how many more cars you could get on this street if everybody were driving a GEM." Under his lobbying pressure, the city of Santa Monica waived parking fees for electric cars.

Most NEVs can run about 35 miles before needing to be recharged. Statistics show that most vehicle trips fall within the that range. Yet, at 25 m.p.h., it can take substantially longer to complete a round trip to Starbucks or Safeway. Moreover, NEV drivers have to plan their routes carefully to avoid thoroughfares with speed limits above 35 m.p.h. – especially here in the land of six-lane highways.

The vehicles have their share of critics. Many environmentalists and even some automakers call them silly or dangerous or both. Environmentalists deride them as a ploy by automakers to skirt California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, which requires that 3 percent of all vehicles sold in the state by 2003 produce no pollutants. Indeed, both Ford and DaimlerChrysler have no other strategy in place to meet the mandate. And since a NEV doesn't count as a full car under the law, they would have to sell four times as many to be in full compliance.

General Motors is one of the companies opposed to the vehicles. Nonetheless, it is giving away its version of the NEV – a 20 m.p.h., street-legal golf cart – as a way to comply with California's smog rules. It is giving them to residents of closed neighborhoods, parks, hospitals, and universities – "any place that will keep them off public roads," says GM spokesman Michael Albano. He calls the automakers' "predicament" unfortunate: "To meet [California's] mandate, we have to give something to the public that is not safe."

GM is lobbying to get NEVs outlawed anywhere the speed limit is over 25 m.p.h. But NEV enthusiasts say the company is just blowing smoke: By giving away instead of selling its 20 m.p.h. Pathway vehicles, they say GM isn't meeting the state mandate. "If they're outlawed on 35 m.p.h. arteries, it defeats the purpose of the NEV," says Mr. Sturges. "They could only stay within neighborhoods, and couldn't get between them."

Some neighborhoods are building special lanes for the cars to keep them out of bustling traffic. Leisure World, a community of mainly retirees 50 miles south of Los Angeles, is creating paths to allow residents, many of whom don't have a driver's license and rely on NEVs for transportation, to drive to the grocery store.

Playa Vista, a new planned community next door to Santa Monica, plans to offer solar-powered battery-charging stations and preferred parking for NEVs. The president of the development even hopes to sell an NEV with every house.

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