States make way for low speed vehicles

More and more permit them to travel on state roads where speed limits are low.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Parking-enforcement officers in Belmar, N.J, a town of about 6,000, use ‘neighborhood electric vehicles’ to save money and be green. Belmar’s mayor began the trend back in 2004.
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Ken Pringle could be driving his Jaguar. But the senior elected official in Belmar, N.J., mostly chooses to silently cruise town roads at 25 miles per hour – top speed for his all-electric “Mayor-mobile.”

That’s what kids in his tiny, oceanside borough dubbed Mayor Pringle’s bulbous “neighborhood ­electric vehicle” or NEV after he bought it on eBay for $5,000 in 2004.

Way back then, gas was just $2 a gallon and only a couple of dozen states allowed NEVs on state roads where the speed limit was under 35 miles per hour. But now, with gas hovering around $4 a gallon, more states are moving to allow them and Pringle’s NEV predilection looks prophetic.

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That’s right: In America, land of the muscle car, the hot new way to strut your stuff on the road is gliding in electric near-silence at 25 miles per hour. From Belmar to Lincoln, Calif., the big car buzz is all about down-shifting to the slow lane.

At least 40 states have now passed laws to permit NEVs to operate on many state roads with more working on new regulations. Meanwhile, some 40,000 NEVs are operating nationwide, says the Electric-Drive Transportation Association. Kentucky and Massachusetts are considering regulations to permit low-speed vehicles (LSVs) on state roads. LSV is a federal designation that includes NEVs, and also some gas-powered vehicles.

Federal standards established for LSVs in 1998 set equipment requirements and operating standards. What separates NEVs from golf carts, for instance, includes minimum vehicle speed of 20 miles per hour and a top speed of 25 m.p.h. They must have windshield wipers, headlights, taillights, and turn signals, to name just a few differences.

State laws vary. In New Jersey, Pringle successfully lobbied the state to allow LSVs in 2004. Rhode Island and West Virginia permit them on roads posted at 25 miles per hour. Kansas allows them on roads up to 40 m.p.h. and Montana up to 45.

Seizing on their growing popularity, leading manufacturers, like Global Electric Motorcar (GEM), a Chrysler subsidiary, are ramping up production. So is Toronto-based Zenn Motor Company, whose NEV looks more like a regular car than a golf cart. Its sales have jumped 68 percent over the same period last year. Tomberlin and Miles Electric Vehicles have also seen sales surge.

“The biggest increase we’re seeing is due to gas prices going up and people seeing our vehicles as a way to significantly cut costs,” says Kara Saltness, marketing manager for Miles Electric Vehicles in Santa Monica, Calif.

Neighborhood electric vehicles can have a range of up to 50 miles per charge, which costs about $1. But things are even better for NEV owners in Lincoln, Calif.

In 2006, Lincoln passed laws that led to special sign­age (“You are entering a neighborhood electric vehicle-friendly community”) and NEV lanes. Residents of the gated communities who lobbied for the laws can easily cruise downtown. It’s common to see mall parking lots with charging stations, where retailers pay to top off NEV batteries for free. Studies put the number of NEVs operating in Lincoln at about 600 – and growing.

David Honeywell, an engineering manager at a local tech company, was one of the first NEV drivers in Lincoln. He joined in the gated communities’ fight for NEV access to roads. Once the laws passed, he hit the roads. But he had an unusual problem.

“I was getting stopped by people all the time, saying ‘What is it?’ ” he says. So he created a website – www.lincolnev.com – and printed it on cards that he hands out, “just so I could get some shopping done.”

Mr. Honeywell was irked by naysayers’ claims that NEV advocates were just exchanging tailpipe emissions for even dirtier smoke stack emissions from power plants. So he studied the issue, crunching numbers he has had verified by experts on the California Air Resources Board.

He found that an NEV charged in California, where clean-air standards are tougher on power plants, is more than six-times cleaner than a gas vehicle when it comes to carbon-dioxide emissions and many times that for nitrous oxide. When charged at an average location in the US, NEVs still produce three times less carbon dioxide.

Even so, long suffering electric-car purists often look with disdain on NEVs. Bob Rice, president of the New England Electric Auto Association, calls NEVs “training wheels for real electric cars.” They give full-blown electric cars that operate at highway speeds a bad name by slowing up gas-powered vehicles, he says.

Others call them “glorified golf carts.”

But not Tom Akins, a retired teacher in Cañon City, Colo., who bought a used GEM just over two years ago and has put 3,600 miles on it. Five days a week, he drives his 12-mile route for errands, only having to use his gas-powered pickup truck once a week – mainly to keep it running well and take trips out of town.

It’s true, he says, that sometimes faster vehicles will ride his bumper. But he and others say good sense and common courtesy prevails – and most NEV owners know when to pull to the side of the road to let others pass.

NEVs are curious, fun, and green. But will the concept last?

Guy Peeters is used to getting odd glances at what he drives. In his gated community of Brooksville, Fla., about 40 miles north of Tampa, people are used to seeing golf carts on the streets. But they are agog over his Tomberlin “neighborhood electric vehicle,” or NEV, with its tall roof, bright red frame, lights, and wipers.

“People are kind of surprised by it,” Mr. Peeters says. “I did have some problems getting it registered, too. They looked at me like I was from outer space and didn’t realize that state law permits them. Mine was one of the first they had seen.”

With gasoline hovering around $4 a gallon, NEV popularity has increased across the United States. But some analysts are less confident about their future. Plug-in hybrid vehicles, due to arrive on the market in a few years, will travel at highway speeds on electric power for 40 miles or so – and even farther when a gas-powered engine kicks in. That may deflate today’s soaring demand for low-speed NEVs.

“We’re seeing more interest now in all electric and alternative-fuel vehicles as gas prices increase – that’s natural,” says Bruce Harrison, an automotive analyst at Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., market-research firm. “We’re not sure NEVs will be doing too much after plug-in electrics arrive.”

Still, Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of Zenn Motor Company of Toronto, says consumers are adopting a utilitarian approach that buys the “right tool for the right job” and will buy a low-speed vehicle for in-town shopping and a higher-speed hybrid for highway commuting and longer trips.

“This [NEV] is a class of vehicle that is not going away,” he writes in an e-mail response to a Monitor inquiry. “For the consumer who never uses the freeway, they will be able to not ‘over-buy’ their transportation needs.”

The mayor of Belmar., N.J., Ken Pringle, says the vehicles are just plain fun to drive. He organizes his travel week around his own Global Electric Motorcars NEV and has gotten his town to buy NEVs to save on fuel and maintenance. Belmar’s costly gas-powered scooters previously used by parking enforcement officers and the recreation department have been replaced by NEVs.

“I’ve found that I tend to stay closer to home because I want to use my NEV so much and it’s the most fun way to go,” Mayor Pringle says. “But I don’t have any doors on it, and sometimes when we’re going out to eat and it’s windy out, my wife puts her foot down, and we have to take the car.”

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