The falling cost of batteries and rise of autonomous driving technology has launched a new stage in the development of mobility technologies. These advances may be bad news for LSVs. For decades small-task oriented vehicles, and in particular by golf cars, have dominated the EV market in terms of production volume. Long before Tesla, golf car manufacturers produced hundreds of thousands of electric golf cars annually. Primarily for these vehicles were for golf courses, but for personal transportation as well. In addition, the large volume of used electric golf cars coming off of golf courses each year were finding their way into the personal transportation and utility markets. In smaller volumes they produced electric powered burden carriers and general utility vehicles for use in enclosed spaces such as factories and warehouses.
Speed and pricing hurt LSV adoption
Federal regulations in the late nineties lead to the development of Low Speed Vehicles (LSVs), originally referred to as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). The LSV classification created the opportunity to move small EVs out of gated and golf communities and relatively confined driving environments and onto public roads in large numbers. Unfortunately, for LSV manufacturers, the widespread adoption of LSVs for personal transportation has never occurred. In theory, LSVs would be a good choice as a second vehicle. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase and operate and suitable for the short trips typical of many drivers. In practice, they are relatively expensive for their limited functionality, and to many they look like a glorified golf car.
With a 25 mph top speed, LSVs are too slow for real life driving where speeds are often 30-45 mph. Federal authorities, already concerned about LSV safety, are unwilling to compromise on safety requirements for higher speed Medium Speed Vehicles. The additional safety requirements for MSVs would make these vehicles relatively expensive compared to fully highway capable vehicles.
Pricing has always been an issue with LSVs, which typically cost around $10,000 on the low end. They find themselves competing against new, used and refurbished golf cars that can cost thousands of dollars less or comparably priced, but heavily customized golf cars. On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest priced highway capable vehicles available do not cost that much more and offer far greater functionality. As a result, the LSV market has never “taken off”. SVR’s research has shown that LSVs for personal use have only gained traction where local laws restrict the use of golf cars on public roads. The trend has been for local governments to allow more golf cars, modified golf cars and even UTVs on local roads.
Where LSV have found some success is on college and corporate campuses. In these environments the LSV safety features are worth the additional expense in the context of insurance and liability. The slower speed is another plus where administrators do not want employees speeding across pedestrian filled campus grounds. The utility LSV has proven to provide plenty of functionality and mobility in these confined environments at a reduced cost compared to pick-up trucks which they often replace. In addition, electric LSVs fit well into sustainability and green initiatives on these campuses.
Electric bikes and scooters offer an alternative
New battery and autonomous driving technologies are unlikely to change the fate of LSVs, and likely will make it worse. Batteries are becoming small enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to create new competitors to LSVs. Namely, a rash of electric bicycles and electric scooters have been entering the market. While costing thousands of dollars, electric bicycles have the potential to chip away at some of the LSV market. Have a short commute on local roads and don’t need to carry much with you. Why not use an electric bike? Need a quick way around urban areas and don’t want to worry about parking? How about an electric scooter.
There are electric bike and scooter sharing programs either already operating or in pilot programs in major cities. These options aren’t ideal in bad weather or for multiple passengers, but they can potentially reduce LSV usage. In fact, they may even provide competition to golf cars and Personal Transportation Vehicles (PTVs) within gated communities.
Autonomous vehicles take a new direction
Similarly autonomous driving technology may very well reduce the potential footprint for LSVs. Google has used some LSVs for the testing of their autonomous driving technology. You could argue from a standpoint of safety that the more controlled environment of gated communities could be a good entry point for the technology. But it appears the major players are starting with highway capable vehicles. There have been some instances of LSVs with the technology being tested for limited use scenarios such as shuttle runs. Currently, the relative expense of the autonomous driving technology compared to the cost of an LSV is likely too high. The economics favor installation on premium vehicles or rental/sharing fleets with the flexibility for high volume usage.
Even in the commercial use of LSVs or their slightly faster cousins in Europe for tasks like urban delivery, autonomous driving technology may undercut the application of these vehicles. There are a number of startups developing autonomous delivery vehicles for operation on streets. However, they are passenger less or even smaller and slower for use on sidewalks. The last vestige for the LSV may remain the college or corporate campus, but even the autonomous shuttle could cut into some of that usage. We may be witnessing the highpoint for the use of LSVs right now.
Marc Cesare, Smallvehicleresource.com