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Published on April 30th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


NEVs on the Urban Street Scene

Neighborhood electric vehicles—more commonly called NEVs and sometimes referred to as Low-Speed Vehicles (or LSVs)—are an economical and environmentally responsible alternative to driving a gas-guzzling combustion engine-equipped car on short trips around town or daily commutes to work.

Compact Car for Close-Range Driving

Almost every state in the U.S. permits NEV-driving on streets with a posted speed limit of 35 mph or less.  Typical NEV models are nearly silent while in use, produce zero emissions, and can be charged in the standard wall sockets that pepper your house, making them ideal for commuting a short distance to public mass transit or for driving to the grocery store or the gym.

Availability and Legality

Traditionally, NEVs were much more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S., but in the past decade or so they have started to catch on stateside. Some companies with models widely available in the US are:

(for Zero Air Pollution) Corporation, based in Santa Rosa, CA, is another well-known producer and distributor of NEVs.  Recently, a wave of controversy enshrouded ZAP as consumers and media reps sought online outlets to vent considerable frustration about ZAP’s committment and ability to deliver their product.  Read more at WIRED magazine or Wikipedia.

Most of these companies have dealers throughout the U.S. who sell a variety of models that cost between $10,000 and $15,000.

Every state has different regulations governing the use of NEVs on public streets, but typically, NEVs:

  • must be registered with the state department of motor vehicle
  • require a driver’s license to operate,
  • have to display some sort of sign to alert other drivers that they travel at low speeds

Though NEVs are allowed to travel on streets with posted speed limits of 35 mph or lower, they are generally restricted to a maximum 25 mph in most states.  If you’re thinking about buying one, you might want to research your particular state’s rules before your purchase.
Smaller Cars Yield Bigger Fuel Savings

Performance and Life Expectancy

They may be limited to a speed of 25 mph, but many existing NEV models reach top speeds of 40 mph.  Lithium ion, lead acid, and even gel-based batteries have all been used to power NEVs. Battery packs usually take 6 to 8 hours to charge, though quick-charging devices can get your NEV fully juiced in 4 hours.

A single charge typically lasts for 30 or 40 miles, but most models have an on-board charger that you can plug in anywhere you go, provided wall outlets are available.  These battery packs last about 100,000 miles, which generally translates into 5 years of life for the average NEV driver.

NEVs are far more efficient than combustion engine cars and can therefore have a huge impact on the amount you spend on gas and maintenance. NEVs don’t use any gas, of course—if they did they’d be a gas-electric hybrid.  But comparisons can be made…

For instance, Zenn claims that its cars get as much as 245 miles per gallon, a figure based on the assumption that a gallon of gas is equal to the amount of energy required to charge their vehicles’ batteries 7 times.

Because NEVs have far fewer moving parts than a combustion engine, electric cars require far less maintenance.  GEM’s Web site features a calculator that compares maintenance costs of NEVs to gasoline-fueled vehicles.  For someone traveling 200 miles a week in an area where gas is $3.00 a gallon (a conservative number these days), it would cost about $208 to maintain a 110 volt GEM car over the course of one year, compared to a whopping $1,155.56 for a standard compact car that averages 27 miles a gallon!

NEVs don’t just save gas and money: they also reduce the amount of air pollution produced by transportation.  NEVs emit no tail-pipe emissions while in use, and even with the pollution generated by the power plants supplying their electricity, most NEV models produce up to 98% less pollution than gasoline-fueled cars.


Aside from the fact that many models look like golf carts, safety may be the biggest sticking point for people who are considering the purchase of a NEV.  By state law, all NEVs must have certain safety features like seatbelts, turn signals, headlights, and windshield wipers.  And given the relatively slow speed at which they travel, crashing your NEV is less likely to result in severe injury.

The biggest safety issue, though, is what would happen if your NEV were to go head-to-head with a Hummer or any of the other gas-guzzling SUVs and full-size trucks out there on your neighborhood streets.  There is of course no remedy for this problem except a drastic change in public awareness about the impact that large automobiles have on our planet’s environment, the global economy, and even the infrastructure of our cities.  The discontinuation of large, impractical vehicles for personal use is the only way to guarantee the safety of NEV drivers, but if you drive your NEV carefully, you’re really in no more danger than you would be in many other compact cars.

The Future of Electric Cars

Ultimately, NEVs may never catch on as a consumer product.  So far they have proven much more valuable to local governments and other administrative bodies looking to save money and natural resources while meeting their transportation needs.  Police and security patrol cars at airports, on college campuses, or within gated neighborhoods and other small communities make up the majority of NEVs on the road today.

The chief factor that seems likely to limit consumer sales of NEVs—aside from safety and design issues—is, if you’re really trying to reduce your carbon footprint, it makes more sense to walk or ride a bike around the neighborhood.  After all, NEVs are super clean, but they’re not 100% clean.  Some sort of membership-based carsharing or rental service may work better than private ownership at the consumer level, as this allows people access to a green transportation method even in bad weather or when they’re in poor health.

Many companies, such as ZAP, Rio de Janeiro’s Obvio, and San Carlos, CA’s Tesla Motors, have electric car models in development that:

  • can reach speeds well over 100 mph
  • have a range of over 200 miles
  • require as little as two hours to fully charge.

Most of these models are designed to look more like sports cars or roadsters than golf carts, adding to their appeal.

The longer range and top speeds that allow them to safely travel on highways are the biggest keys to the electric car’s success as a consumer product.  The future of the electric car may very well be with vehicles that aren’t limited to neighborhoods at all…

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