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States make way for low speed vehicles

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

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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.

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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.”