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.