Topic:
FUEL (GENERAL); LEGISLATION; MOTOR VEHICLES; TRAFFIC REGULATIONS;
Location:
MOTOR VEHICLES (GENERAL);

OLR Research Report


September 22, 2008

 

2008-R-0479

NEIGHBORHOOD ELECTRIC VEHICLES

 

By: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Analyst

You asked several questions regarding neighborhood electric vehicles including:

1. what they are,

2. what states permit their operation,

3. if Connecticut has considered allowing them to be operated,

4. if this would have to be done through legislation, and

5. what are some of their advantages and disadvantages.

SUMMARY

Federal standards were first established for low speed motor vehicles in 1998. These standards define them and establish mandatory equipment requirements for them. We were able to identify 40 states that have granted statutory authority for low speed vehicles, referred to in some of the states as “neighborhood electric vehicles” to operate on certain types of roads. In all but Rhode Island, the authority extends to all roads of a certain type anywhere in the state. Rhode Island authorizes them only for operation on Prudence Island. As you know, Connecticut law does not authorize operation of low speed vehicles on public roads.

Every state that statutorily authorizes operation of low speed vehicles requires them to be registered. In the majority of cases, the statute has an explicit requirement for registration. However, in some states, the requirement is established indirectly in that these vehicles are defined as “motor vehicles” and the state's general registration law requires motor vehicles to be registered unless exempted. None of these states exempt low speed vehicles.

Most of the states limit the operation of low speed vehicles to roads for which the speed limit is set at not more than 35 miles per hour. Idaho, West Virginia, and Rhode Island limit them to roads with speed limits of 25 miles per hour or less. New Jersey authorizes them for roads up to 25 miles per hour, but allows state and local authorities to allow them for roads of up to 35 miles per hour if they choose. Maryland limits them to roads of 30 miles per hour or less. Kansas allows them to be operated on roads of up to 40 miles per hour and Montana allows them on roads of up to 45 miles per hour. Colorado only authorizes municipalities to determine where they may operate; the law does not set a speed limit maximum as the other states do.

Of the 40 states, 30 allow low speed vehicles to cross roads with higher speed limits. Most of the states that allow such crossings do so only at intersections. Maryland, Rhode Island, and Vermont limit this authority by designating the maximum speed of roads that may be crossed. Illinois, Maryland, and Vermont further limit the authority to cross to intersections that are “controlled”, that is, governed by a traffic light or a four-way stop. New Jersey requires crossing at a signalized intersection, or at a non-signalized intersection if approved by a state, county, or local authority, when the road being crossed has more than two lanes, is divided, or has a speed limit over 35 miles per hour. California permits crossing a state highway at an uncontrolled intersection only if the state highway agency approves it.

The federal standard for low speed vehicles requires them to be capable of reaching at least 20 miles per hour and not more than 25 miles per hour. The majority of states we found adopt this as the standard in their definition of a low speed vehicle. However, several establish only a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour without specifying a minimum speed. These include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, and Vermont. Indiana and Montana specify a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour with no minimum speed. Washington defines two classes of vehicles—“medium speed vehicles” with a minimum speed of 30 miles per hour and a maximum of 35 miles per hour and “neighborhood electric vehicles” with a minimum speed 20 miles per hour and a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour.

Michigan, unlike any of the other states, specifically requires low speed vehicles to operate as far to the right side of the road as practicable.

The laws of all of the 40 states, except for Oregon and Colorado, make explicit reference to these low speed vehicles having to comply with the federal standards. Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and West Virginia explicitly adopt the federal definition of a low speed vehicle by reference.

More than half of the states allow state, county, or local authorities to further restrict low speed vehicle operations, or even prohibit them entirely on some or all roads if it is the interest of public safety. In Wisconsin, low speed vehicles can only be operated if a municipality adopts a permissive ordinance. Illinois has a similar requirement that allows them only if a municipality has adopted a permissive ordinance. The Illinois law requires the municipality to consider the volume, speed, and character of traffic before approving an ordinance. Colorado has a permissive law, that is, low speed vehicles are only allowed to operate when a local authority has permitted it by ordinance or resolution.

Recently, the governor of Kentucky issued an executive order requiring the state motor vehicle agency to develop procedures for registering electrically-powered vehicles for use on public roads. The order covers vehicles capable of moving up to 50 miles per hour, so they probably should not be considered low speed vehicles in the same sense as the other states have authorized. Kentucky does not authorize low speed vehicles statutorily.

The Connecticut legislature considered a bill on neighborhood electric vehicles in 2005. The bill, SB 1288, was favorably reported by the Transportation Committee and passed by the Senate, but was not taken up by the House. Legislation would have to be enacted to allow such vehicles to operate in Connecticut because a motor vehicle must meet numerous statutory requirements to be registered by the motor vehicle commissioner for highway use and these vehicles do not meet all of those requirements.

The main advantages of neighborhood electric vehicles compared to regular passenger cars are that they are convenient to use, relatively inexpensive to operate, cost less to purchase, and, if electrically powered, do not produce the pollutants associated with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

The main disadvantages of neighborhood electric vehicles are that they are relatively less safe than standard passenger vehicles under crash circumstances, present a bigger problem if they run out of power while in use, may have more difficulty operating in very bad weather because they are so much lighter than standard vehicles, and, if used on a widespread basis, could place additional demands on the commercial power grid from which they must draw their power to recharge.

FEDERAL STANDARDS FOR LOW SPEED VEHICLES

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) first adopted regulatory standards for low speed vehicles in 1998. The NHTSA regulations define a low speed vehicle (LSV) as a motor vehicle that (1) has four wheels; (2) can attain a speed in one mile on a paved, level surface of at least 20 miles per hour and not more than 25 miles per hour; and (3) has a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 3,000 pounds (49 CFR 571.3). The regulations do not limit LSVs to being electrically-powered.

The regulations require all LSVs to be equipped with: (1) headlamps, tail lamps, and stop lamps; (2) front and rear turn signals; (3) red reflex reflectors on both sides and the rear; (4) an exterior mirror on the driver's side and either an exterior mirror on the passenger side or an internal mirror; (5) a parking brake; (6) a windshield that conforms to the federal standard for glazing materials; (7) a vehicle identification number that conforms to federal standards; and (8) a seat belt meeting federal standards at each designated seating position (49 CFR 571.500).

It is important to note that these standards are considered by NHTSA as the minimal requirements for motor vehicle safety. There are many more standards that apply to motor vehicles typically that do not apply to LSVs; for example, crash resistant bumpers, side door protection, padded interiors for occupant protection, air bags, roof crush resistance, antilock braking systems, and hood retention latches.

Most of the states that allow the operation of low speed vehicles on some roads require them to meet these federal standards. Of the 40 states we identified with low speed vehicle laws, only Oregon's and Colorado's laws appear not to explicitly refer to compliance with the federal regulations.

STATES THAT AUTHORIZE OPERATION OF LOW SPEED ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Table 1 provides information for the 40 states we found with laws allowing low speed vehicles to be operated on some roads. The states typically refer to them as low speed vehicles (LSV) or neighborhood electric vehicles (NEV). The laws in Montana and Washington refer to them as medium speed vehicles (MSV). The table identifies (1) the maximum speed limit for roads for which their operation is authorized; (2) whether they are allowed to cross roads with higher speed limits and any limitations that apply, (3) what characteristics define these vehicles under the state's law, (4) the minimum and maximum operating speeds for these vehicles, and (5) if there is authority to regulate them at the state or local level that goes beyond the general statutory authorization for them to operate.

Table 1: States Permitting Operation of Low Speed Vehicles

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

Alaska

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

State weight, equipment, and safety standards must be consistent with federal standards

20

25

Local government may further restrict operations

Arizona

35

Yes at designated intersection

4 wheels

Emission-free

---

25

 

California

 

Yes, at intersection

Only permitted at uncontrolled intersection with state highway if state agency approves

4 wheels

3,000 lbs. max.

20

25

Local authorities may restrict use. Local or state authority may prohibit use if in the best interest of safety and appropriate signs are posted

Colorado

Local roads as determined by ordinance or resolution

Cannot be permitted on limited access highways

 

Electric

Must meet statutory equipment standards

---

25

Local authorities have discretion to permit operation

Delaware

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Trucks excluded

Max. weight under 2,500 lbs.

20

25

 

Florida

35

Yes, at intersection.

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

County or Municipality may prohibit if in the interest of safety

Table 1: -Continued-

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

Georgia

35

Yes

4 wheels

Vehicle must display amber strobe light

20

25

 

Hawaii

35

Yes, at Intersection

4 wheels Emission-free

2,500 lbs. max.

---

25

 

Iowa

35

Yes

Federal Definition

     

Idaho

25

 

4 wheels

Electric

Emission-free

     

Illinois

35

State or local authorities may authorize if public safety will not be jeopardized

Yes, at intersection

Crossing state highway only permitted at signal-controlled intersection or four-way stop signs if the speed limit on the highway is 35 mph or less

Neighborhood Vehicle

4 wheels

Electronically-powered

If gasoline powered, engine must be under 1,200 cubic centimeters displacement

20

25

County or local government must adopt permissive ordinance for vehicles to operate on local roads. Authority, including state authority must consider volume, speed, and character of traffic before approving ordinance or permitting operation and must post permissive signs.

Indiana

35

 

4 wheels

Electric

---

35

 

Kansas

40

Yes

4 wheels

20

25

 

Louisiana

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

Local governments may prohibit if necessary for public safety

Maryland

30

Yes, on roads up to 45 mph at an intersection controlled by a traffic signal or four-way stop signs

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

County or municipality may prohibit by ordinance

Maine

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

1,800 lbs. max. unloaded weight

Excludes an all-terrain vehicle

20

25

State or municipal authority may prohibit if necessary for safety

Table 1: -Continued-

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

Michigan

35

Must ride as near to right side of road as practicable

Yes

Federal Definition

   

State DOT may prohibit on any state highway if necessary for public safety

Minnesota

35

Yes

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

Yes, may prohibit or further restrict

Missouri

35

Yes

Federal Definition

   

County or municipality may adopt more stringent ordinances if in the interest of public safety. State authority may prohibit operation if necessary in the interest of safety

Montana

45

 

Electric

Fully enclosed

Wheelbase of 40 inches or more

Wheel diameter of 10 inches or more

---

35

 

New Hampshire

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

 

New Mexico

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

State or local authority may prohibit if necessary in the interest of safety

Nevada

35

 

1,800 lbs. 4 wheels max.

Max. capacity of 4

20

25

 

Table 1: -Continued-

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

New Jersey

25

35 with approval of state authority or permissive local ordinance

Yes, for roads of 35 mph or less

If road is more than two lanes, divided, or has speed limit over 35 mph crossing must be only at signalized intersection or non-signalized intersection approved by state, county, or local authority

4 wheels

Not a truck

Not powered by gasoline or diesel fuel

20

25

State or local governing body may prohibit on any road regardless of speed limit if use constitutes a hazard

New York

35

Yes

Gross weight under 3,000 lbs.

20

25

State or local authority may prohibit

North Carolina

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

State authority may prohibit on any road if necessary for safety

North Dakota

35

Yes

4 wheels

Max. weight of 3,000 lbs.

20

25

 

Oklahoma

35

Yes

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

City may further restrict on certain streets to ensure public health and safety

Oregon

35

 

4 wheels

20

25

City or County may allow operation on roads with higher speed limit

Rhode Island

25

Only on Prudence Island from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Yes

Electric or Gas Powered

Max. capacity of 4

---

25

 

Table 1: -Continued-

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

South Carolina

35

Secondary roads only

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Excludes all-terrain vehicles

20

25

County or local government may adopt more stringent ordinances or prohibit in interest of safety

South Dakota

35

 

4 wheels

Excludes golf carts and homemade vehicles

20

25

Local governments may adopt more stringent regulation

Tennessee

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

Excludes golf carts

20

25

County or municipality may prohibit on any road if necessary in interest of safety

Texas

35

Yes, at intersection

Federal Definition

   

County or Municipality may prohibit if necessary in interest of safety

Utah

35

 

4 wheels, electric, 4 passenger max., Excludes golf carts

---

25

Yes if necessary for public safety

Virginia

35

Yes, at intersection

4 wheels

Electric

Excludes golf carts and vehicles used exclusively for agricultural or horticultural purposes

20

25

State or local authorities may prohibit in interest of safety as indicated by conspicuously posted signs

Vermont

35

Yes, for roads of 50 mph or less and only at signalized intersection

4 wheels

Electric

Emission-free

3,000 lbs. max.

Max. capacity of four

 

25

State authority or municipal legislative body may prohibit if in interest of public safety. If traversing intersection if prohibited, sign must be posted

Table 1: -Continued-

 

Maximum Speed Limit of Roads Where Operation is Allowed

Crossing Higher Speed Roads Permitted

Definition of LSV/NEV/MSV

Vehicle Operating Speed

Local Authority to Regulate or Prohibit

Min

Max

Washington

35

Not permitted on listed state highways

Yes, at intersection

May not cross road on state highway system at uncontrolled intersection unless local authority approves

MSV

4 wheels

Electric

Roll cage or crush-proof body design

30

35

Local authorities may regulate, however, they may not prohibit NEVs on roads of 25 mph or less or MSVs on roads of 35 mph or less

NEV

4 wheels

Electric

20

25

Wisconsin

35

Local roads only

 

4 wheels

Electric

Max. weight under 3,000 lbs.

Excludes golf carts

20

25

Prohibited from local roads unless municipality adopts ordinance approving use.

State may disallow ordinances involving connection with state highways

West Virginia

25

 

Federal Definition

     

KENTUCKY EXECUTIVE ORDER

On August 5, 2008, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear issued Executive Order 2008-824, which requires the state's transportation secretary to immediately develop and implement by emergency regulations standards for authorizing the use of “Low Speed Electric Vehicles” on Kentucky's highways. Although the order refers to them as low speed vehicles, the definition the governor uses in his order differs from the definitions used by the 40 states we found with low speed vehicle statutes. The executive order defines a low speed vehicle as one that:

1. is designed to operate at up to 50 miles per hour,

2. has three or four wheels,

3. is electrically powered, and

4. meets or exceeds the federal safety standards for low speed vehicles.

The governor's order requires these vehicles to be allowed to operate on roads with up to a 45 mile per hour speed limit and allows them to cross higher speed roads at a signalized intersection.

Apparently, the Kentucky legislature recently considered a bill to authorize operation of low speed vehicles but chose not to enact it. The governor issued the executive order shortly thereafter.

CONNECTICUT LEGISLATION

The General Assembly considered low speed vehicle legislation in 2005. The bill, SB 1288, received a public hearing from the Transportation Committee on March 14, 2005 and was favorably reported by the committee on March 21. The Senate adopted the bill on May 25, 2005 and sent it to the House, but the House did not take it up.

SB 1288 authorized operation of neighborhood electric vehicles by someone who owns, leases, or has a contractual right to use it (1) on premises over which he or his employer has control or possessory interest, or on which he or his employer has a contractual right to operate it or (2) on highways that have established speed limits of up to 30 miles per hour that are on, or contiguous to, such premises. But the bill authorized a municipality's local traffic authority to limit or prohibit operation on any highway under its jurisdiction.

A neighborhood electric vehicle was defined as a four-wheeled, self-propelled, electrically-powered motor vehicle designed for carrying passengers with an attainable speed of at least 20 but not more than 25 miles per hour on a paved level surface. Neighborhood electric vehicles had to meet standards established for low-speed vehicles by federal regulation as well as various state requirements for mandatory equipment.

In addition, the bill authorized the motor vehicle commissioner to issue registrations and certificates of title for these vehicles, subjected them to mandatory financial responsibility requirements applicable to other types of passenger motor vehicles, and required the driver to have a valid driver's license or learner's permit. It required a registration applicant to pay a fee of $18.

SB 1288 required neighborhood electric vehicles to comply with the various equipment requirements mandated by state law (CGS 14-80 through 14-106c), to the extent they were consistent with the federal low speed vehicle standards. These laws cover, among other things, exhaust systems; ball joints and tie rod ends; brakes; hydraulic brake fluid; head and tail lamps; reflectors; stop lamps; light colors; sufficiency of head and rear lights; auxiliary lights; turn signals; fender, backup, and identification lamps; light intensity; tires; mirrors; windshields; tinted windows; use of safety glass; seat belts; fenders; video displays; air conditioning equipment; and tamper-resistant odometers.

The bill required the commissioner to issue certificates of title for neighborhood electric vehicles that have been issued a manufacturer's or importer's certificate of origin and a vehicle identification number. It also subjected them to the other statutory requirements for titled motor vehicles, including various fees such as the $25 title application fee and the fees for noting and filing a security interest and searching title records.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF NEIGHBORHOOD ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Advantages

The main advantages of neighborhood electric vehicles compared to regular passenger cars are that they are convenient to use, relatively inexpensive to operate, cost less to purchase, and, if electrically powered, do not produce the pollutants associated with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

Neighborhood electric vehicles are typically powered by electric batteries and are recharged by plugging them into a standard electrical outlet. The typical recharge period is six to eight hours according to some manufacturers. This feature makes them relatively cheap to operate when compared to gasoline–powered vehicles because they are drawing their power from the commercial power grid.

According to statistics compiled by the federal Energy Information Administration, the average retail price of electricity in Connecticut for residential users in April 2008 was 19.4 cents per kilowatt hour. For purposes of this illustration we will assume a cost per gallon of gasoline to be $3.50. According to its website, Global Electric Motorcars (GEM)—

a well known manufacturer of neighborhood electric vehicles—asserts that the comparative annual costs of “fuel” for its vehicles for usage of 125 miles per week would be $252 compared to $843 for a gasoline-powered compact vehicle getting 27 miles per gallon based on these rates.

Although there is variation among manufacturers and models, neighborhood electric vehicles typically cost less to purchase new than the standard types of motor vehicles. For example, according to its website, prices for the various models made by Global Electric Motorcars range from $6,795 for its basic two-passenger model to $17,495 for its six-passenger “special edition” model. Its four-passenger basic model starts at $9,695.

Disadvantages

The main disadvantage of a neighborhood electric vehicle appears to be its crashworthiness relative to standard types of motor vehicles. Using GEM data as an example, the curb weights for its model line range from 1,140 pounds for its two-passenger model to 1,690 pounds for its six-passenger model. (Curb weight is a vehicle's weight empty of passengers or cargo.) This compares to a curb weight of approximately 2,945 pounds for a Saturn Ion, 3,200 to 3,300 pounds for a Honda Accord, and 3,200 to 3,400 for a Toyota Tacoma truck. This relative weight difference means that a neighborhood electric vehicle typically would have less than half of the mass of most standard vehicles it might encounter in a crash situation, even in the relatively slower speed environments in which it might operate. This weigh disparity puts the smaller vehicle at a significant disadvantage in an accident.

Although low speed vehicles are typically limited to a maximum speed capability of 25 or 30 miles per hour in most cases, and to relatively low speed roads of 35 miles per hour or less, they are likely to encounter heavier vehicles traveling faster than 35 miles per hour. Traffic engineers know that a significant portion of motor vehicles exceed posted speed limits, even on low speed roads. The likely speed differential between standard vehicles and the neighborhood vehicles would be a hazard. The Connecticut Department of Transportation cited this factor in its testimony opposing the 2005 legislation.

Also, as noted above, many of the federal safety standards that apply to standard passenger motor vehicles do not extend to low speed vehicles. Lack of the airbags, side door reinforcement, roof crush resistance, and other things that standard vehicles must have would put occupants of a neighborhood electric vehicle at a significant disadvantage compared to passengers in a standard vehicle in case of a crash. Because they are lighter and minimally equipped for safety, there also could be issues with respect to how they can perform in particularly bad weather conditions such as accumulated snow or ice.

According to manufacturers' information we found, the typical range of a neighborhood electric vehicle on a full charge is probably around 35 to 50 miles. Once it has exhausted its power, it can only be moved after it has been recharged, which according to GEM information, takes about six to eight hours. Should such a vehicle lose its power while in use, it could be at a disadvantage relative to a gasoline-powered vehicle which could be restarted relatively quickly if it runs out of fuel. The electric-powered vehicle would need access to an electrical outlet which may or may not be readily available.

Critics of neighborhood electric vehicles also assert that they are not without environmental cost since they rely on commercially generated electricity that has environmental costs to generate that, depending on the way in which power is generated, can be significant. Widespread use of plug-in electric vehicles, they argue, would place additional demands on already inadequate commercial power generation capabilities and produce additional pollution.

JF:ts