Neighborhood Electric Vehicles: A Different Kind of Electric Car

While electric cars keep going farther and faster, these vehicles are small, slow, and fulfill a useful purpose in the community.

Eli Electric

Electric cars have gone mainstream. Popularized by Tesla, the legacy manufacturers are scrambling to introduce their own electric models. As a result, everyone is comparing cars like the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf to comparable models powered by internal combustion. What's the range? How fast will it go? How fast will it charge? But there is also a place in the world for smaller and slower electric vehicles—specifically, local transportation within cities and suburban communities. 

Golf carts and similar vehicles have become quite popular for quick hops around town in some places. In Peachtree, Georgia for example low-speed vehicles are so popular that the town has constructed a 100-mile infrastructure of paths throughout the community specifically for them.

Because different states were creating conflicting regulations to govern them, in 1998 the U.S. Department of Transportation established a special federal classification for low-speed vehicles that are legal for road use. These vehicles are restricted to a top speed of 25 mph, a maximum weight of 3,000 pounds, and may not be driven on roads with a speed limit greater than 30 to 45 mph, depending on individual state laws. 

Although the federal low-speed vehicle category does not require an electric motor, people commonly refer to electric versions as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. You may not have heard of them, but they're already here. Currently, most electric vehicles in the U.S. are not cars but NEVs. Some of them are little more than electric golf carts. A few owners have added even rudimentary weather protection, such as plastic windows and vinyl doors, to make their "daily drivers" a bit more accommodating in less than optimal weather conditions.

Eli Electric

The Eli Zero.

Eli Electric sees a big future in this category. "Our current model of private transportation is unsustainable," said Marcus Li, CEO at Eli. "We run small errands in elephant-sized industrial machines. The reality is nearly half of all household trips are solo passenger treks of less than three miles."

Eli's first model, the Zero, meets all of the qualifications for an NEV while providing many of the creature comforts of a car, as well as safety features like a solid roll cage and seat belts, that some current NEVs lack. "We hope Eli Zero will not only benefit our customers for its convenience and practical savings but also benefit communities for its minimal physical and environmental footprint," said Li.

The NEV is intended to be a supplement to cars rather than a replacement. The idea is to use the NEV for all of your short hops around town, then use your car or SUV for longer trips, or to haul more people or cargo. This saves gas and keeps the miles off your car. Plus, NEVs are much easier to maneuver and park in town due to their small size.

Renault

The Renault Twizy.

Another potential contender in the NEV market is the Renault Twizy. Similar in concept to the Eli Zero, it was introduced in Europe in 2012 and has sold more than 15,000 units. The European market is certainly more open to smaller vehicles for their smaller cities than the U.S., which is likely why the Twizy is not currently available here.

But one major advantage of NEVs is their price. The Eli Zero is slated to sell from $9,900 to $11,900. The Twizy sells in the U.K. for the equivalent of $9,900 to $11,300 but does not include the battery pack, which is leased along with a service plan for an additional monthly fee. Still, either option still costs less than the Nissan Versa at $12,110, which is currently the least expensive car available in the U.S. according to USA Today

With the price of new cars ever increasing and electric cars still out of many people's reach, the NEV may provide a viable alternative to a subway pass or a good pair of shoes.