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Low-Speed Electric Vehicles: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?

October 6, 2009 - 6:00am

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In an earlier job, I was a contractor supporting the Navy and Marine Corps Energy Awareness Program. Half of the ground fleet—as well as half of the personal vehicles—on one of the Navy bases I visited were electric golf carts. [See Navy Develops Green Island Program to Improve Base Life beginning on page 13. (PDF 8.9 MB). Download Adobe Reader.]

Soon after my visit, the base added low-speed electric cars and trucks, also known as neighborhood electric vehicles or NEVs. I interviewed the ground transportation fleet maintenance staff and was impressed with their electric vehicle program. Though low-tech, it made good economic and environmental sense. Battery charging was simple; you just plugged into a standard 120-volt outlet. The base was only one square mile so no vehicle, not even the gasoline vehicles capable of going over 100 mph, could go more than about 25 mph.

The base was located on the coast. The conventional vehicles rusted out quickly and the engines needed to be replaced every few years because they couldn't reach the highway speeds needed to burn off the excess oil in the engine. The fiberglass bodies of the golf carts were better able to withstand the salty air, and except for minor battery and computer maintenance or replacement, the golf carts kept going and going and going.

NEVs are cheaper to buy, operate, and maintain than conventional vehicles. It's no wonder that NEVs, which have a regulated top speed of 20-25 mph—a bit higher than golf carts—are popular on campuses, retirement communities, military bases, and other gated communities with roads having low posted speed limits. Many federal, private, and public fleets also are using NEVs at national parks, commercial airports, and for local government activities.

Though often viewed as glorified golf carts, NEVs have come a long way. The early ones were more golf cart in nature, with no doors! Now you can buy them with doors. You can buy a variety of models including 2-, 4-, and 6-passenger cars, and even pickup trucks. Some models resemble and are equipped like conventional vehicles, except of course with the lower maximum speed. They still have an upper limit of 25 mph because of current legislation. Most states allow them to operate on roads with a 35 mph or lower speed limit. My state of Maryland allows them on roads with a maximum 30 mph speed posting.

Commercially available NEVs are tested on closed tracks under DOE's Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity (AVTA). As mentioned in yesterday's blog, the AVTA is a DOE activity that tests production and pre-production advanced technology vehicles and produces information resources to help fleet managers and the public make informed decisions when purchasing advanced technology vehicles.

Check out the AVTA's NEV Baseline Performance Testing Summaries to learn about characteristics, such as the driving range and number and type of batteries, of specific NEV makes and models.

Though I don't live in a gated community, I could easily drive one from my house half a mile to the old town "Center" of the city where I live. That would get me to the community center, the library, the municipal swimming pool, a cooperative supermarket, a theatre and cinema, several restaurants, and some shops. However, roads with 35 to 45 mph postings would prevent me from going to the two closest conventional shopping centers one to two miles away, or to the Metro station. I participated in a visioning exercise a couple of years ago that my city put on to investigate ways to make my city more "green." I recommended exploring how to use NEVs locally.

Are any of your communities using NEVs?

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