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

By Eric C. EvartsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2002


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

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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.

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.