The NEV Next Door?

by Frank Bohanan

Imagine this: one day, you’re parked at a stoplight in your massive brute-ute. In the next lane pulls up a three-wheeled golf-cart-alike powered by a battery pack. When you stop chuckling, you might begin to think: is a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) a better way to get around your suburban village?

If you live in or near one of the many gated resort or retirement communities in Florida, California or Arizona, it’s probably already happened. New laws and new technologies are encouraging the development of NEVs, causing the phenomenon to spread into many more parts of the country — even including places without golf courses.

If you haven’t driven or seen an NEV yet, they’re a little strange to see on the open road. These vehicles are generally powered by batteries and an electric motor and are capable of speeds up to 25 mph. They can also be restricted to only 15 mph when necessary. The range of these vehicles is usually on the order of 30 miles or so, and the time for a full recharge varies from about 4 to 10 hours.

The intended market for such vehicles ranges from the aforementioned residents of gated communities to security personnel in business parks and college campuses, etc., to even military personnel. The key usage demographic is a small geographic area with speed restrictions on the roads.

Ford, DC in the NEV game

The two primary players in the NEV game are Ford with its Th!nk neighbor line of vehicles and the DaimlerChrysler subsidiary Global Electric Motors with its GemCar. Both vehicles fit the basic description above and offer multiple configuration options to better suit the customer. The Th!nk, for example, is available in either a two-seat or four-seat configuration with prices expected to range from about $6000 for a base two-seater up to about $8000 for a fairly well optioned four-seater.

The Th!nk offers a “Luxury” package with soft side weather enclosures, a heater/defogger, cooler/mister, an upgraded 12v power point for electrical accessories, even a moon roof. The “Family” package includes things like an ISOFIX child retention system, an expanded trunk with a “cooler attachment/storage solution” and an in-dash stereo. Of course a “Sports” package will also be available with a golf rack/platform assembly, special street/turf tires, a sweater basket, rubber floor mats, holders for golf balls, tees and sand/seed bottles plus the aforementioned cooler setup. A fleet package with various utility features will complete the offerings from Th!nk.

The GemCar offers changeable modular accessory packs, which include pickup truck style cargo beds to allow owners to customize their vehicles to better meets their needs.

These are not low-tech vehicles by any means. The Th!nk uses an extruded aluminum frame and thermoplastic body panels which are modular and have the color molded right in. The powertrain includes a 72v, 5-hp electric motor which is capable of accelerating the Th!nk from 0-20 mph in about 5.0 seconds. The powertrain even features regenerative braking to help extend range and reduce the cost of recharging. Since low cost is a priority the battery packs are based on lead acid or maintenance free gel-cell technology and use 110v recharging systems. There are no plans to offer more advanced batteries since the range isn’t necessary, although 220v recharging may be a future option to help reduce the charging time required in a commercial setting.

The suspension system is a fully independent system, which uses coil-over shock absorbers and control arms similar to what is used in many sports cars. The steering is rack and pinion while the brakes are four-wheel hydraulic drums. These vehicles have the power to haul payloads of up to about 1000 pounds for the four-passenger models and can even tow a small utility trailer up a steep hill.

Highway substitutes

Operating costs should be low since NEV owners may qualify for discounted electrical rates in some areas and only very minimal maintenance is required. The potential lack of a mandatory insurance requirement makes NEVs an even more attractive substitute for a regular vehicle if their capabilities can meet your needs. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) feels the growth in usage of these vehicles will be so great they developed special safety standards for them. A new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS), number 500, requires that such vehicles incorporate safety devices such as three-point restraints, safety glass, 3-mph bumpers, rearview mirrors, horns, parking brakes and the usual lighting and reflector equipment to appropriately address the safety of these “low-speed” vehicles, as NHTSA defines them.

Sales volumes for these vehicles are expected to only be in the 10,000 - 20,000 range for the first few years although this could change drastically due to the zero emission characteristic of these vehicles. Various government agencies such as the National Parks Police are interested in NEVs since they can perform their patrols in a more environmentally friendly manner with them. Similar interest has been expressed by municipalities and airports, etc., where there is a need and/or interest in reducing mobile source emissions.

Perhaps the greatest volume driver of all will prove to be a provision in the recently revised Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate from the California Air Resources Board. Car Connection readers have been kept well informed of the various views on this mandate, especially the opposition to it from the car companies and the dealerships. NEVs may be able to help the situation since they will actually be counted towards the number of vehicles each car company is required to offer for sale. In the state of California, for example, the revised regulation would actually give four ZEV credits for each NEV sold in the first two years of the requirement (2003 & 2004). While a pure ZEV vehicle sold in those years would get significantly more credit, such vehicles are likely to be sold at a loss while the NEVs will almost assuredly be profitable as well as desirable. Since NEVs will likely also qualify for ZEV tax credits and rebates, sales should be good.

The ZEV credit for NEVs drops down to only .15 by 2006 in anticipation of public acceptance of pure ZEV vehicles with (hopefully) improved technology and performance. In any case, the appeal of NEVs on economic and convenience reasons should assure their popularity regardless of their potential role in the ZEV mandate.

Thus far NEVs are legal for on-road use in 33 states and many of the others have at least expressed interest in various programs, which would make them available in inner cities to help reduce both pollution and congestion. Perhaps Nick Palmer, Brand Manager for Th!nk Mobility summed it up best when he said “Th!nk neighbor is the perfect choice for customers who need mobility within a relatively small geographic area, such as a suburban community, gated community, resort or commercial complex. In addition, Th!nk neighbor provides the added bonus of being an environmentally responsible zero-emissions vehicle.”

Proof of this is that many new housing developments include special areas in their garages to store and recharge such vehicles. Builders began to notice that many homeowners, particularly senior citizens in retirement communities, began to purchase golf carts to run errands and pay social visits, etc. This make lots of sense since the trips are relatively short, the vehicles are inexpensive relative to buying a regular car and the cost of operation is greatly reduced. The down side is that regular golf carts don’t have a very long range, they usually lack safety features and they’re not particularly fast or powerful.

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