Unless you’ve been living on a ranch or tucked away in an especially isolated small town, you’ve no doubt encountered a so-called neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV). They’re the little vehicles that you’re likely to find at resorts, theme parks, large retirement communities, in eco-fringe neighborhoods, or even for pizza delivery or messengers in some dense urban areas. Some of them are styled like mini-me versions of normal cars; others are Flintstones-like oddities.
In either case, they aren’t substantial enough to be classified as real cars, yet they’re definitely more than a golf cart—and, for a very limited audience, a way to get an electric car now. Typically, these vehicles come with less than a 40-mile range and heavy lead-acid batteries.
The bulk of these vehicles have been classified as “low-speed vehicles” by the federal government, meaning that out of the dealership they aren’t allowed to go any faster than 25 mph (many of these models can easily be modified to go quite a bit faster). Miles, GEM, and ZENN are some of the more popular low-speed vehicles—many of them with quite affordable prices, in the realm of economical small gasoline new cars—while new entries include the Wheego Whip, which TheCarConnection.com has reviewed.
Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration looked into the introduction of a new classification of vehicles—medium-speed vehicles (MSVs)—for these small, light city cars, which would require some safety equipment like lights, mirrors, safety belts, a windshield, and a parking brake, along with a 35-mph allowance, but not passenger-vehicle protection standards like crumple zones and airbags. The request was denied, as NHTSA anticipated an increased risk of fatalities and injuries due to the vehicles. In the denial, the agency appropriately titled one of its section statements, “It is neither necessary not appropriate to significantly increase the risk of deaths and serious injuries to save fuel.”
Yet a number of states have gone ahead and allowed these vehicles (modified) to go faster, and beyond the side streets.
To help navigate through this confusing framework of state-by-state rules, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has put together a table that covers medium-speed vehicle regulations, state by state, indicating the types of roads on which they’re permitted and their allowed top speed. There’s also a handy map that shows at a glance what type of roads these MSVs are permitted on; limitations vary greatly again on a state-by-state basis, with some states only allowing them on streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less and others having no restrictions (other than limited-access highways, likely).
TheCarConnection.com and http://www.greencarreports.com/ have driven a few of these vehicles and cautions that they’re not real cars. If you’re out in traffic on a higher-speed road, the lack of power and lackluster handling and braking in these models, along with the lack of safety features, is reason enough to steer away from them. Mopeds would likely have better accident-avoidance ability. But if you’re only navigating back alleys or low-speed lanes, away from major highways, these vehicles remain viable options.