Electric cars are all the rage, but very few of us want to trade in our powerful gasoline or diesel vehicles, or can afford them or to buy one. However, cars that are powered by batteries are nothing new. They have been around since the 1930s in the form of golf carts and senior transportation.
These vehicles have remained on the links for most of that time, but they are beginning to emerge in cities, parks, subdivisions and other urban settings across the country as neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs).
History of the NEV
The history of NEVs parallels that of golf carts in general. The first electric cars were found in Los Angeles and were used for transporting elderly and handicapped people to the grocery store. These early examples of electric vehicles were used for years before J.K. Wadley of Arkansas had the bright idea of buying one for use on the golf course. At the same time, electric golf carts were being independently invented in Florida by Lyman Beecher.
In the 1950s, the urban use of electric cars all but disappeared, but they quickly took over golf courses around the world. Golfers with money bought them for personal use, and country clubs rented them out by the day to those who couldn’t afford carts or have a place to keep them.
The state of electric cars remained unchanged for more than 20 years, but in the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturers began to market them to community associations and residents as a convenient and affordable means of local transportation. Golf cart communities soon started to emerge in coastal areas and on islands with limited traffic. Today, however, these communities have moved inland and can now be found in states such as Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.
The growing demand for urban golf carts prompted manufacturers to develop NEVs that were made for streets, trails and off-road activities rather than for grassy golf courses. Hundreds of models are available from dozens of manufacturers, and they range in price from $2,000 to $30,000.
NEV Laws and Regulations
To be considered an NEV golf cart, a particular vehicle must be battery-operated, designed to carry at least two passengers, weigh less than 3,000 pounds and have a top speed of 25 mph. 25 mph is the maximum allowable speed to be federally classified as a low-speed vehicle, which is regulated differently from other motorized vehicles, such as cars and trucks. In addition to the federal regulations, which are mostly concerned with safety features such as headlights, seat belts, windshields and turn signals, drivers of NEVs must abide by state laws and local regulations.
Most states that have regulated NEVs allow them to be operated on secondary streets with low-speed limits, usually 35 mph. Other laws vary by state and community. For example, South Carolina requires that individuals be at least 16 years of age and possess a valid driver’s license while Florida only requires drivers to be 14 years of age or older. Also, some states, such as New York, require NEVs to be equipped with seat belts or three-point restraints, windshield wipers, a speedometer and rear lights. In many states, NEVs must also be titled and registered like traditional motor vehicles.
NEV Golf Cart Basics
NEVs are environmentally friendly and produce no greenhouse gasses because they operate on rechargeable batteries, and the California Air Resources Board classifies them as zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). The average distance that can be driven on one charge is 30 miles, but some models can go much further. Even though manufacturers cap vehicle speeds at 25 mph, they can be modified to travel at up to 45 mph.
Most NEVs seat two to four people and have additional space available for cargo, but some models are designed to seat six passengers. The batteries used by these vehicles are primarily of the deep-cycle lead-acid variety to help keep costs down, but newer versions are starting to employ costlier lithium ion and metal hydride batteries. Most of these batteries can be charged through standard 110-volt outlets, but some require 220 volts, which reduces the eight-hour charging time by half.
The three types of lead-acid batteries that are most commonly used for NEVs are as follows:
• Flooded – These are the traditional lead-acid batteries where the plates are submerged in an electrolyte solution.
• Gel – In these batteries, the liquid electrolyte has been replaced with a gel, and they are sealed to prevent evaporation.
• Absorbed glass mat (AGM) – AGM batteries use a material similar to fiberglass to hold the electrolyte in place.
When it comes to price, NEVs cost less than most traditional cars do, and they are less expensive to operate. Depending on the cost of electricity where they are used, you will pay $0.01 to $0.03 for every mile the NEV is driven. Additionally, federal and state tax credits may be available to offset the costs.
The Great NEV Boom
Eleven years ago in 2004, NEVs were still relegated to a few coastal communities, and only about 56,000 were in use in the United States. Two years later, that number jumped to 76,000, and it was estimated that more than 478,000 were in use around the world in 2011. According to conservative predictions, the number of NEVs on the road will reach 695,000 by 2017, and the largest markets will be China, the U.S., and France.
As expected, annual sales of NEVs are also increasing. In 2012, more than 40,000 new NEVs were sold around the world. About 18,000 were sold in the U.S. In 2017, worldwide sales are expected to jump to 55,000, and U.S. sales will top 25,000. The annual growth rate of NEVs is 6.6 percent, and this is double that of light-duty vehicles, which are mostly being replaced by their electric counterparts.
NEV use is not only growing in the consumer sector but also in the commercial, industrial and military sectors. Companies with large buildings or warehouses employ them to transport executives, VIPs and workers from one end to the other. In 2009, the U.S. Army announced that it would be leasing 4,000 NEVs to carry personnel throughout Army bases, for security patrols and deliveries.
Buying an NEV Golf Cart
The choice to buy an NEV should not be taken lightly, and some caution should be used when first entering the market. However, as long as you stick with a trusted manufacturer, such as GEM or E-Z-GO, it is hard to go wrong. Once you have narrowed your options, you can then shop with confidence based on personal preference.