Can Neighborhood Electric Vehicles Help Your Campus Go Green?

With environmental benefits, low operating costs and flexibility of use, neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) could offer a viable alternative in your fleet. Yet there is much to consider before taking the leap to fully battery-powered vehicles.

From cross-campus transport to community patrols, neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) target the task with the right type of vehicle. But with a built-in set of limitations, can they work for your fleet? In this article, electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers, consultants and fleet users weigh in on the practical considerations of NEV operations. The answers to these questions will help you decide.

What is an EV exactly, and what can I buy now?
An EV is a vehicle powered by electricity supplied by a rechargeable battery. Almost all EVs currently available are classified as low-speed vehicles (LSVs) and are commonly termed neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs). These vehicles are governed to a top speed of 25 mph and are legal on most U.S. streets with posted speed limits of up to 35 mph.

The latest NEVs hold a charge for 30 to 60 miles and run on an array of deep cycle lead-acid batteries, similar to car batteries. Most can be fully recharged with a standard 120v outlet in seven to 12 hours.

Why should I consider NEVs for my fleet?

  • Environmental benefits: NEVs are a way to reduce CO2 and other emissions, and help the environment, as well as fulfill a campus’ green mandate. NEVs emit about seven pounds of CO2 for every 25 miles driven, assuming recharging from an electric power grid that burns only coal. A standard gas-powered vehicle emits 22 pounds of CO2 under similar circumstances.
  • Inherently low operating costs: Fully recharging an NEV to run 30 to 60 miles costs less than $1. NEVs cost little to maintain relative to gas-powered vehicles.
  • Flexibility of use: NEVs are allowed access inside buildings and on sidewalks where gas-powered vehicles can’t travel. They fit the vehicle to the task when a larger, gas-powered vehicle is overkill.

What types of NEVs are on the market?
Today’s NEVs have a range of customizable body types and engine capabilities. Passenger carrier models range from two to eight seats with storage upgrades. Industrial use models can be equipped with stake beds, enclosed cargo carriers, toolboxes and ladder racks.

To satisfy NHTSA safety criteria for street operation, NEVs are equipped with three-point seat belts, windshields and windshield wipers, running lights, headlights, brake lights, reflectors, rear view mirrors and turn signals.

Most NEVs are door-less, open-air affairs, although a market is being established for electric vehicles that more closely resemble cars for a wider variety of applications and all-season use. Some have fully enclosed aluminum alloy frames, sophisticated batteries, longer charges and features such as heat, air conditioning and audio systems.

Major manufacturers include Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motor Cars (GEM), ZAP, ZENN, Columbia ParCar, Dynasty Electric Car and Miles Electric Vehicles, to name a few.

How do I spec an NEV?
Specifying an NEV is similar in many ways to specifying a gas-powered vehicle, with a few unique parameters to consider:

  • What’s the range of miles you’ll need to drive each day? Battery packs can be configured for a certain range, which can be extended if your routes have stops with outlets for an “opportunity charge.” Recharge times can be shortened with an off-board fast charger.
  • Can you perform functions off road, such as shuttling people and cargo around a campus, on sidewalks and in large buildings? Can you legally drive the NEV on your routes? Remember, NEVs are only allowed on streets with 35 mph speed limits. NEVs that travel on public streets must be licensed and insured.
  • What are your passenger and payload requirements? What is the driving terrain? Payload and terrain have a significant impact on the range of NEVs. Typical payloads for NEV cargo haulers are up to 1,000 pounds. Some models, such as the Columbia BC5 Burden Carrier, can carry up to 5,200 pounds of cargo. Range can vary by as much as 50 percent for a hilly terrain or if an NEV is heavily loaded with passengers or cargo. For these heavy burdens, look for batteries with a higher power density.
  • In what type of climate will the vehicle be operated? Cold climates negatively impact driving range. Campuses located in cold climates should plan to garage the vehicle in a heated area for charging. Many NEVs have options such as heaters, defrosters and doors (both hard and soft canvas).

What are fleet operating costs for a typical NEV?
New NEVs run from $6,000 to $18,000 and cost less than three cents a mile to run on electricity. As an example, a two-seat GEM e2 base model costs $7,500. To operate this one vehicle for three years and 3,600 miles (assuming $900 for insurance costs, $90 in electricity, $50 to license the vehicle for public roads and $300 for a maintenance service contract) would cost a total of $4,840. Battery packs are under warranty for two to three years in most cases. After three years of operation, add the cost of a new battery pack, which runs from $600 to $1,000.

Are there any grants or tax incentives available for EV purchases?
There are programs funded at the city, county, state and federal level that may be specific to electric vehicles or fall under an alternative fuel grant. Try the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Web site.

For local programs, check with your DMV and other local agencies.

Should I consider a used NEV?
Buying used NEVs is an option, but use caution. Some considerations:

  • Examine the condition of the batteries. When were they bought?
  • How old is the vehicle? There have been considerable improvements to NEVs manufactured after 2002.
  • How many average miles does the vehicle travel on a charge?
  • Does the seller have a written maintenance log?
  • As with any pre-owned vehicle, thoroughly inspect it. Check the lights, brakes, seat belts, wipers and turn signals. Check the plastic body panels for cracks or blistering.

Used NEVs can cost as little as $3,000, although a low-mileage GEM four-seater will sell for around $6,000. Used NEV prices can vary considerably; at present, pricing guidebooks such as Kelley Blue Book do not list NEVs.

What are the preventive maintenance requirements of an NEV? Will new training be required for our campus maintenance staff?
With substantially fewer miles driven, fewer moving parts and no coolants, fluids, oil, lubricants or exhaust, an NEV will have much fewer service requirements than an internal combustion car.

Regular operational checkups are nonetheless recommended. Jim Gaw of Nautical Wheelers, a Texas-based tourist rental operation, keeps his fleet of 40 NEVs on a weekly maintenance program in the busy summer season. In addition to a thorough cleaning, he checks the lubrication, lights, tire pressure, brakes and water levels of the batteries.

Gaw handles preventive maintenance tasks himself. However, fleets with no maintenance facilities should establish contract services for repair issues. Larger NEV fleets with in-house maintenance capabilities should consider electric vehicle training for one or more mechanics.

How do I best maintain the batteries?
The greatest amount of maintenance, preventive or otherwise, involves the batteries. There are two types of lead-acid batteries: flooded lead-acid (FLA) and valve regulated lead-acid (VRLA). The single biggest battery maintenance chore involves checking FLA batteries and “watering” them if their fluid levels are low. This should be done weekly.

If they are not watered, FLA batteries will subsequently dry out and fail prematurely. VRLA batteries are sealed and require no watering, although they are a few hundred dollars more expensive.

Protective covering should be used when watering batteries. It should be done in an area that can contain any acid that may drip from the batteries during watering or when the batteries are charged.

Check for battery corrosion. A cleansing additive called Charge It dissolves the lead sulfate on the battery plates. Properly maintained batteries should provide at least a three-year battery life.

What other steps can I take to prevent premature battery failure?
Like all lead-acid batteries, the ones in your NEV will hold a charge longer if used and recharged regularly. NEVs have a parasitic load that can drain the battery even when the vehicle is turned off. If the vehicle is not used frequently, this load can discharge the vehicle battery in less than two weeks to a “zero state of charge,” and damage the battery.

Look to see if your NEV has a battery disconnect switch for times when the vehicle will be inoperable for more than a few days. Don’t leave batteries plugged in for longer than necessary.

What other types of maintenance issues might I experience?
A 2006 government study of NEVs in fleets found these recurring problems:

  • Onboard charger failure, especially for vehicles that were operated frequently and charged for extended periods every day. Many failed because of exposure to the environment.
  • Motor controller failure
  • Motor overheating during missions that required high power for hill climbing or carrying heavy loads
  • DC-DC converter failure because of water splash to circuit board and fuse connections

Any tips on charging?

  • For small NEV fleets, charging from a standard 120v convenience outlet is generally sufficient. However, large numbers of vehicles aggregated at the same location for charging can overload a circuit. Additional charging outlets are recommended at NEV parking locations.
  • Buy a timer to charge the vehicle(s) during non-peak electricity grid hours
  • Make sure the charging cord is the proper gauge to prevent overheating
  • New batteries will likely not charge to full capacity until 20-30 charge cycles
  • FLA batteries may have considerable gassing; therefore, it is recommended to charge outdoors. Gel-capped VRLA batteries do not need such ventilation.
  • When charging outdoors, make sure you have an outdoor-safe outlet and plug that can withstand inclement weather as well as direct sunlight.
  • Fast charging can provide an emergency backup when vehicles do not receive an overnight charge. Fast chargers recharge a battery pack at about a mile for every minute charged.

What should I look for in terms of warranty and service support?
Before you purchase, ask manufacturers about their warranty and service support.

  • Will service requests be handled through onsite service calls, or will the service center pick up the vehicle from your location?
  • Is the service center in your area?
  • Will you have to deliver the vehicle for service?
  • What are typical repair times?
  • What are typical repair costs for out-of-warranty servicing?
  • What parts are stocked locally for NEV repair?
  • What types of non-manufacturer repairs will void the warranty?

Where do I sell used NEVs?
There are many sources to remarket used NEVs: your selling dealer, auctions, Internet sales portals such as eBay and Craigslist, and special interest groups (resort/retirement communities, other campuses, etc). Ask your selling dealer for guidance on how to price your used NEV.

What’s on the horizon in the EV world? Should I wait for the technology to improve before investing in it?
The next step for the EV is a highway-capable vehicle with longer range and shorter charge times. Companies such as Phoenix Motorcars, Miles Automotive and the well-publicized Tesla Motors are on the verge of bringing a utility truck, passenger sedan and sports car to market.

In terms of fleet use, the Phoenix Motorcars SUT is the closest to viability, with stated plans for fleet sales in the first quarter of 2008. The SUT claims a top speed of 95 mph and a charge range of more than 100 miles. Base MSRP is $45,000.

This brave new world of all-electric transportation hinges on advances in battery technology. The industry is leapfrogging from lead-acid batteries to nickel metal hydride batteries (that power the Prius) to lithium ion technology, which have four times the energy density of lead-acid batteries.

This technology positions EVs as true competitors to fossil-fueled vehicles. However, the technology is in its infancy and is expensive. Aside from battery considerations, any fleet considering highway-capable vehicles from a new manufacturer needs to judge crash tests, product quality issues and the long-term viability of the company.

The neighborhood electric vehicle market, while still growing itself, has established dealer networks, parts and service support and is real-world tested.


Consider the Alternatives

Patrol bikes, Segway personal transporters and T3 series personal mobility vehicles are all excellent ways public safety personnel and other hospital, school and university employees can get around campus while reducing their carbon footprint.

The T3 (middle) has a zero-degree turning radius, travels at speeds up to 25 mph, and is powered by two rechargeable, field swap-able power modules. The Segway PT (right) enables each officer to stand eight inches higher than the ground, resulting in an improved view of sidewalks, streets and inside buildings. Patrol bikes enable officers to actively engage in community policing while allowing them to quickly travel to a scene across campus if needed.


For More Information

Additional information on neighborhood electric vehicles can be found at the following Web sites:

www.evfinder.com
www.evworld.com

Manufacturer/Dealer listings
www.nevportal.com

Eckhaus Fleet
(independent Zap distributor)
www.eckhausfleet.com www.electricfleetonline.com

Electric Vehicle User Forums
www.evdl.org
www.evforum.net
www.evtrader.com

Grants and Funding
Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Web site http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/incentives_laws.html


Numerous sources contributed to the article: Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation, SoCal Edison (Rosemead, Calif.); Dean Taylor, technical specialist, electric transportation division, SoCal Edison; Michael Coates, CEO of MightyComm, an environmental automotive communications company, (Sacramento, Calif.); Jim Gaw, owner of the NEV rental operation Nautical Wheelers (Port Aransas, Tex.); Belinda Forknell, marketing manager, Global Electric Motorcars; and Tim Yopp, CTO of Eckhaus Fleet, an independent electric vehicle distributor. Also consulted was a U.S. Department of Energy Study, “Guidelines for the Establishment of a Model Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) Fleet,” June 2006.

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Cover Story, Fleet Management, Parking Management, Patrol Vehicles

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