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Road midgets: DIY NEVs and solar golf carts

There are compact cars and subcompacts and minis and superminis, but even smaller and lighter yet are the NEVs or LEVs. Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) or Low Speed Vehicles (LSVs) are defined as vehicles capable of reaching speeds of 20mph, but not above 25mph.

It’s a relatively new vehicle class. It was invented in 1998 by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in response to the rising use of small vehicles, including golf carts, for short trips in planned communities. While the federal government established the vehicle class, regulations around NEVs varies by state, they are generally restricted to roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less.

Since most of the travel in the U.S. is done on local roads with speed limits under 35mph, NEVs have become in demand for short commutes or to run errands in town. They’re considered Zero Emissions Vehicles since they produce no tailpipe emissions and they’re cheap to run. They can be recharged with any standard 110v outlet and cost on average 2 to 3 cents per mile.

Pound for pound NEVs tend to be pricier than standard cars; they range from a $2000 golf cart to a high end $35,000 Zap car (which can reach speeds over 35 mph). Thanks to federal subsidies, buyers of new NEVs can benefit from a tax credit. Under the 2009 stimulus plan, the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Credit (Section 1142), NEV buyers are eligible for a tax credit of 10% of the purchase price, up to $2,500 (though not all NEVs qualify).

LSVs come in many shapes. They range from fully-enclosed vehicles resembling small cars, like the Zenn the Kurrent to more open-air vehicles like the GEM (Global Electric Motorcar) or even modified golf carts.

How to modify a golf cart

With higher gas prices, not only are NEVs becoming more popular, but so is the trend for street legal golf carts. Towns across the U.S. have begun to pass bylaws allowing for their use not just in planned communities, but on city streets.

Dave Broker of Florida’s Fairway Golf Carts told us in an email interview that he has seen a huge growth in interest in the golf carts they sell for city use. “I’d say that 30-40% of our business is sold to people that will never take them to the course. They are fun, quiet, NO GAS!! [his emphasis], tons of uses. The way Florida communities are laid out, they are perfect to run up the the store, bus stop, beach etc.”

The town of Lake Mills, Iowa, recently voted on a golf cart ordinance. “We have bicycles on the street. We have lawn mowers on the street. I don’t know why golf carts would be a problem,” argued city councilman Duane Skellenger. The city council was voting on whether to restrict their use from April 1 through November 1, but state law does allow these vehicles on the street provided they have a 5-foot bicycle flag and a slow moving vehicle sign and are only used between sunrise and sunset.

Restrictions on just what makes a golf cart street legal varies by state and even city. Lamar, Missouri, recently legalized golf carts on city streets and resident Don Miller explains the checkup he went through before hitting the street.  “Well you got to have an inspection, headlights, tail lights, didn’t specify turn signals but I put turn signals and a horn, it’s got to have a horn, got to have the flag on it”.

Suzan Torguson of Washington State’s NW Golf Carts, Inc. sells a street legal golf cart, the Tomberlin E-Merge (which qualifies for the Plug-In Electric Vehicle tax credit). She warned us in an email that not all souped-up golf carts qualify as an NEV.

“For example, in Arizona, you can modify an electric or gas golf cart to be street legal in their state. That Arizona law has been in place for years… In the State of Washington, besides conforming to federal government regulations the state law specifies that only vehicles that are “manufactured” to be a Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) and contain a VIN # can be licensed as NEVs. Many states have also added the Medium Speed Vehicles (MSV) to their laws but the manufactures have not caught up in availability of Medium Speed Vehicles.”

When to go from green to road

There are plenty of websites offering advice on how to make a regular golf cart legal for city streets, but Dave Broker argues this might not be ideal for everyone.

“To some they’d be spending $2000 on a cart that’s worth $900, and when the work is complete the cart still isnt worth $2000. That’s after they trailer it back and forth to the department of transportation for approval. The N.E.V. purchase is taking someone that is already looking for a new or newer cart and selling them the extra uses and tasks that they’d get out of it.”

Broker argues that people should consider where they plan to use the cart before they even upgrade from a basic cart. “I can only speak for my area, but there are tons of neighborhoods that allow golf carts to run free with only having head lights or a mirror and D.M.V. or D.O.T. aren’t involved at all. What I am saying is that the term “street legal” is thrown around to much.”

Without using the term the Guardian reported on the trend to take golf carts from “green to road” when gas prices were at their peak in 2008. Pine Lawn, Missouri mayor Paul Heideman- whose town allows for carts on city streets- explained that not only do these open-air vehicles promote a “friendlier atmosphere”, but they help cut emissions.

“You can definitely save on gas,” argues Heideman. “My cart’s electric, but even the ones that run on gas hardly use any of it.”

A truly zero emissions vehicle

Purchasing a car with solar panels on the roof is becoming easier, but often they serve simply to run the AC, like with the 3rd generation Prius. Given the reduced energy needs of a golf cart, solar panels can actually run the entire vehicle. Of course, it takes a bit of time; 3 days to be exact if you’re a Cruise Car owner.

The manufacturers of this $7,000 solar golf cart explain on their website how to fuel up via the sun. “If you don’t drive the vehicle for three days and you park it in the sun, the Sunray Solar Top will generate 36 gallons or amps In winter and 54 gallons or amps in the summer. So, in effect, you would fill your tank in three days.”

Since the solar top provides continuous charge to the batteries when the sun is shining, the batteries will continue to be topped off on sunny days, though it can be plugged in for a faster charge. For those who already own a golf cart, Cruise Car sells the solar panel for the roof for $1,500.

A partial list of NEVs and street legal golf carts

The Kurrent

  • An all-enclosed car with top speeds of 45 mph (only legal to 35 mph). Range of 35-40 miles. 8 hours to recharge.
  • Price: From $9,800.

Zap Car

  • A 3-wheeled “motor scooter” that works like a car. Xebra Zero has a rooftop solar panel.
  • Price: $11,500 – $35,000.

ZENN (Zero Emissions No Noise)

  • An all-enclosed hatchback for two passengers. Range of 30-34 mph with maximum speed of 25 mph. Regenerative braking. 80% recharge in 3 hours.
  • Price: $11,000 to $13,000.

Cruise Car

  • Solar-powered golf carts for 2, 4 or 6 people. Reach speeds of 18 mph.
  • Price: $7,000

Tomberlin E-Merge

  • Top speeds of 25mph and range of 30 miles.
  • Price: $8,000

Columbia PARCAR

  • Cars with an extended range and power for 2 or 4 passengers.
  • Price: $9,500 to $12,000.

American Custom Golf Carts

  • Luxury NEV’s with names like Hummer H3, California Roadster and Cadillac Escalade.
  • Price: $9,000 to $25,000

Dynasty Neighborhood Electric Vehicles

  • An all-enclosed sedan using lead-acid batteries with range of 30 miles.
  • Price: $14,000 to $25,000.

Global Electric Motorcars (GEM)

  • GEM, part of the Chrysler Group, offers 3 models carrying from 2 – 6 passengers. Top speed of 25 mph and a range of up to 30 miles
  • Price: $7500 to $13,500.