The Medium Speed Electric Vehicle Conundrum
By Bill Moore
On April 23, 2007 Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer leaned over the short hood of a ZENN electric car outside the capitol building in Helena and signed into law SB0185, creating the nation's first Medium Speed Electric Vehicle (MSEV) regulation. A similar measure has been approved in Washington State and awaits the governor's signature.
But what seems like an innocuous piece of legislation, the kind that gets passed by the score in State Houses across America, is likely to be the match to a short fuse that could set off a powder keg of lawsuits that divide the embryonic electric car industry.
SB0185 is slated to take effect this summer once the state's DMV computer system creates a category for MSEVs, which are a bold, some would argue risky, step to widen the market niche for electric cars. At present, there are two classes of EVs: highway-capable models that meet all the safety requirements of their gasoline and hybrid counterparts. There are, at best, a few thousand of these registered in America. Some are converted gasoline engine vehicles, while a few hundred were built by automakers to comply with the the California Zero Emission Vehicle mandate of the late 90's.
The second class are called Low Speed Vehicles (LSVs) by the federal government, but are more commonly referred to as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles or NEVs. In 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) created Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 500 (FMVSS 500), which defined what an LSV was, setting down rules as to how they should be equipped and where they could legally operate and, most critically, how fast they could be. It is this last specification, that they operate no faster than 25 mph, that is being challenged by SB0185 and in Washington State by HB 1820.
Both state bills would bump the permissible top speed to 35 mph.
Three individuals in Montana played key roles in getting SB0185 introduced; Steve Titus, who is developing the Solar Bug, Ron Gompertz who runs EcoAuto, a green car dealership in Bozeman and Richard Weaver who owns a ZAP Xebra, which technically doesn't fall into the MSEV or LSV category despite having a top speed of less than 40 mph. In Weaver's case, he not only wants to see more EVs on the road, but he also wanted the state to amend its motorcycle law to again include vehicles like the Xebra. He also wrote the first draft of what would become Montana's MSEV law.
Specifically, Montana's law would require MSEVs to meet all the requirements of FMVSS 500, plus include either a roll bar, roll cage or crush-proof body design. In addition, the manufacturer or dealer would have to place a sticker on the left rear window showing the top speed of the vehicle. With the increase to 35 mph, MSEVs would then be allowed to operate on any road where the top speed was no more than 45 mph.
Titus told EV World that this would make virtually any part of town accessible to an MSEV. Presently, LSVs are limited to streets with speed limits no greater than 35 mph.
While Washington State's law is nearly identical to Montana's, it still restricts MSEVs to streets with 35 mph or less speed limits.
The problem posed by the passage of these two bills -- and individuals in California are rumored to be working on similar legislation -- is that it challenges the federal government's authority to regulate vehicle safety. A NHTSA engineer in Washington, D.C. explained that once the vehicle goes over 25 mph, it then falls into the regular automobile class and as such will need to meet all the normal safety requirements, including air bags and crash testing, which would be prohibitively expensive.
If you're going to go to that expense, the NHSTA engineer asked, why limit the speed of the vehicle to 35 mph?
The central question is, Is 35 mph any more dangerous than 25 mph? NHTSA stopped testing LSVs because there simply weren't enough accidents or injuries to justify continuing the program. Would 35 mph increase the accident and injury rate?
Passage of these two measures poses a serious dilemma for LSV manufacturers. While they would certainly benefit from widening the serviceable area of their products, doing so presents some technical challenges, but potentially even larger legal ones.
In a fax sent to Washington State Governor Chris Gregorie, an attorney for Global Electric Motorcars (the largest, most successful LSV manufacturer in the world) urged the governor to veto HB 1820 because it would, "in effect, create a new motor vehicle classification that conflicts with federal law."
The letter cautioned that based on current federal law, it would be illegal for a business to sell an MSEV. It also would be illegal for a business to modify a LSV to qualify as a MSEV. The attorney pointed out, and this was confirmed by the engineer at NHTSA, that the only way one can legally acquire an MSEV at the moment, is to modify the vehicle themselves.
"As a responsible manufacturer of LSVs, we do not want to encourage individuals to tamper with their vehicles nor do we want them exposed to the associated safety risks considered by... NHTSA in creating the LSV motor vehicle class."
Presumably, a similar letter was sent to Governor Schweitzer. He signed the bill anyway.
For the time being, both laws are largely symbolic because there are no MSEVs and the current handful of LSV manufacturers are not going to risk taking on the federal government, but as Ron Gompertz noted, the point isn't to challenge the government so much as it is to encourage the creation of a new class of EV, and that's where this is liable to eventually end up.
NHTSA has previously modified FMVSS 500 upon public petition, and there is nothing preventing the industry, its dealers or interest groups from doing the same. A strong case will need to be made that by implementing some additional safety measures -- the rollbar, roll gage, crush-proof frame provision in the Montana law -- will prevent any serious increase in the number of passenger injuries or fatalities.
If modifying FMVSS 500 isn't appropriate, then creation of a quadracycle class similar to that in Europe would seem to be the logical course. France, in particular, has had twenty-years experience with this class of light-weight, urban vehicle whose top speed is comparable to an MSEV. Quadracycle manufacturers there, like Microcars upon which the ZENN is based, have done extensive crash testing over the decades. And since ZENN is coming out this summer with a new AC-based electric drive, upgrading it to an MSEV would be feasible.
Coincidentally, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico just acquired two ZENNs to patrol city parking lots and museums. City employees are likely to discover that while 25 mph is adequate, 35 would be better... the industry just has to figure out how to do it safely and affordably.
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