Neighborhood Electric Vehicle:
Is it Dead or Alive?

zenn NEV at the beach

Does the neighborhood electric vehicle have a place in today's electric car world - a world dominated by major automakers, the latest lithium ion battery technology, and high speed charging infrastructure? Or do the "golf carts on steroids" just give REAL electric cars a bad name?

We've become so accustomed to seeing NEVs only in terms of their limitations that we may have overlooked their best game.

If you'll walk with me a minute, I think I can show you that the humble neighborhood electric vehicle, far from being obsolete, has capabilities that no Detroit-produced freeway flyer ever dreamed of.

As I see it, not only can an NEV save the planet by running on electricity rather than fossil fuels, it also has the power to save lives.

Reframing the NEV's weaknesses

Let's talk about those famous "limitations" of an neighborhood electric vehicle for a minute, shall we?

zenn electric car
  • Limited speed. Neighborhood electric vehicles are usually governed by law and by the factory controller settings for a maximum 25 mph top speed. Forget the freeway.
  • Limited range. NEVs generally have lead-acid batteries and about a 25 mile range, give or take. Forget the road trip.
  • Limited passengers. You can put four people in some of the neighborhood electric vehicles, but will it actually move with that much weight? Sort of. Two people is a pretty reasonable maximum number of humans in your average NEV. Forget the joyride.
  • Limited gadgets and accessories. Sure, you can crank the stereo in your neighborhood electric vehicle. With a 12v charger and a DC/DC converter, you can use your battery pack to charge your cell phone and your laptop, no problem.
  • Of course, every electron that goes into your various electrically-driven gadgets will be deducted from your range.

    Want to drive at night? No problem, there are headlights. But every electron your headlights consume will also be deducted from your range.

    Before long, NEV drivers tend to lean away from draining their batteries for purposes that don't translate into miles... for maximum miles from your NEV, forget the music, forget the gadgets, and forget driving at night.

They're cute (or funny-looking, depending on your point of view), but that's not really a limitation. Is it?

Okay, Lynne. But what's all this got to do with saving lives?

Public Health Enemy Number One.

When I talk about preventing public health problems with neighborhood electric vehicles, I'm not referring to CO2 emissions or air pollution. I'm talking about the leading cause of death for Americans between 16-20: motor vehicle crashes.

When you include the deaths of their passengers and pedestrians involved in their crashes, motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more teenage deaths than the next four causes combined.

I recently came across a workshop report from the National Research Council entitled Preventing Teen Motor Crashes: Contributions from the Behavioral and Social Sciences: Workshop Report, which opened my eyes to the seriousness and the scope of the problem of teenage car crash deaths in the United States.

"Furthermore," the report went on, "nearly two of every three people killed in teen-driver crashes are people other than the teen driver." (AAA office of Governement Relations report: "Teen drivers - everyone is at risk", 2006)

So why Americans?

According to the report, it's because our kids drive earlier here in the US, they're more likely to NEED to drive for work or after-school activities, and they get less practice at it before they're fully licensed. Teenage motor vehicle deaths are a problem everywhere, but there are more of them in the United States than elsewhere.

And why adolescents?

A variety of things come together to create a "perfect storm" of fatality risk for kids behind the wheel, including peer pressure, incompletely developed "executive function" in the pre-frontal cortext of the brain, and even sleep deprivation is a contributing factor.

But besides alcohol, the major risk factors for teenage driving fatalities invariably seem to include:

  • Presence of multiple passengers. "The risk of crashing is significantly elevated for teen drivers who have teenage passengers," says the report, and "...the figures for 16 year olds are particularly striking, showing a risk of 2.28 for drivers alone and 4.72 for drivers with passengers, compared to 1.00 for drivers ages 30-59, with or without passengers." The report went on to note that the presence of multiple passengers seems to multiply the risk of crashes, no matter what the apparent cause (like driver error, speeding, or alcohol consumption). A neighborhood electric vehicle, as noted above, tends to discourage carrying multiple passengers. No room.
  • Driving at night. "Fatal crash rates per miles driven are higher for teens driving at night than during the day." You can certainly drive a neighborhood electric vehicle at night, but the battery juice you use in headlights comes out of your range, so you might prefer not to. A neighborhood electric vehicle is also easily identifiable. If your kid is in a graduated licensing program and not allowed to drive at night, it's easier for them to sneak around the licensing restriction in a Pontiac than a Kurrent, right? NEVs stick out like a sore thumb. (In a good way, of course: )
  • Speed. From the same report "Preventing Teen Motor Crashes", this time contributed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: In fatal motor vehicle crashes involving 16 year old drivers alone, 30% of the time speeding was a factor. But with 16 year old drivers with 3 passengers, 59% of the time speeding was a factor. A neighborhood electric vehicle tends to keep you within the speed limit, no matter how many passengers you've got.
  • Distractions. This has to do with the immaturity of the brain. "The executive function, which is the key to judgement, impulse control, planning, organizing, and still under construction in the teenage years. The particular risks posed to teen drivers by extra passengers, music, cell phones, and other sources of stimulation or distraction begin to make sense when this aspect of teen development is understood." A neighborhood electric vehicle can't actually prevent you from texting and driving, but at 25-35 mph, the stakes aren't as high (as at freeway speeds) if you make a mistake. Plus, you'll probably want to keep the stereo use to a minimum so as to keep the range to a maximum.
  • Inexperience. It takes time and practice for young drivers to learn to respond correctly to emergencies, and according to the report, having a parent in the car supervising doesn't help because in that situation the parent tends to take over the responsibility of searching for hazards, reminding the driver to reduce speed and take notice of traffic controls. Hours and years of practice driving on your own is what reduces the risk of crashes naturally. Driving an NEV on your own allows you to get all the practice you need at driving, but without the high stakes involved with a freeway-capable car. A neighborhood electric vehicle tends to have a low center of gravity (thanks to a heavy battery pack under the floor), so it's also pretty forgiving of beginner driving mistakes like overcorrections.

As you can see, what might be a "limitation" in a car to be driven to work by grown-ups might be a real plus in a car to be driven to school and Pizza Hut by a teenaged driver.

Now, the neighborhood electric vehicle is not guaranteed to package up your high-schooler in bubble wrap and deliver them safe and sound to their 21st birthday party...

...but I can certainly see how Mom and Dad could sleep better at night with young Jordan or Hunter's first car being an NEV!

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