Why Low-Speed Vehicles Signal A Shift in Public Attitudes

By Bill Moore

Posted: 17 Feb 2010

The following is written testimony I plan to present during public hearings at our state capitol in Lincoln on February 22nd in support of a pair of bills that would allow the legal operation of both golf cars and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) on public streets in Nebraska, one of the few remaining states without legal provisions to do so.

Madam Chairman, Senators Mello and Louden, honored committee members, thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify.

My name is Bill Moore and I am the founder and publisher of EV World.com, regarded as one of the Internet's most trusted online publications devoted to advanced electric vehicle technology. I am also considered the 'godfather' of the OPPD/NPPD PowerDrive program in which thousands of Nebraska teens have competed for the last decade; many of them your constituents. In the time that I have, I would like to share with you my perspective on LB 1100 and its companion measure, LB 1004 as an automotive industry observer.

Since the enactment of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 500 in 1998, more than 40 states, including all of those immediately surrounding Nebraska, have adopted legislation allowing low-speed vehicles on public roads. While you as state legislators have much to consider this session, allow me to set the significance of these bills into a larger context.

Three major factors are driving the transition in the automotive industry towards increased vehicle electrification, as personified in the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf electric cars.  The Volt -- an extended range electric car -- goes on sale in November of this year; the Leaf -- a fully battery electric car -- in 2012.  They are the vanguard of a much larger wave of electrically-propelled forms of mobility that are headed our way in this decade.

The first factor is an environmental one. Though gasoline-powered vehicles are more efficient today than they were forty years ago, if you drive one, you pollute. Multiple that by the more than 2 million registered motor vehicles in the state, and the more than 230 million nationwide and you begin to understand the scope of the problem. Cars aren't just a pollution problem, they are a public health issue.

The second factor is government fuel economy regulations that have accelerated the date at which car maker fleets must average 35 mpg in the United States, and even more stringent CO2 standards abroad. One of the most important ways to achieve that is to electrify the powertrain. The first vehicle to demonstrate this possibility was the Honda Insight Hybrid, a car that I owned from 2000, the year it was first introduced, until 2009. I was regularly able to achieve fuel economies better than 60 mpg. The car I drove from Omaha to Lincoln today delivers better than 99 mpg because it is a plug-in hybrid with 20 miles of electric driving range.

The third factor is global oil demand. In addition to the environmental security and human health concerns reflected in these new regulatory realities on a national level, we also have a resource depletion problem. As China and India have come on the world stage, they compete with the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea and other economies for what remains of the world's oil supply. This reality will absolutely drive up the cost of oil worldwide.

Allow me to quote Jim Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales in North America. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on November 17, 2009 he said the following in response to a question about future oil prices:

“Oil is going to be more expensive.

“Our model of future energy is that we will probably see peak oil sometime around the end of the next decade, so whether it's 2017 or 2020, it's going to be sometime in that neighborhood.

“I can tell you that that belief is what is driving our solutions of what will drive our future vehicles. Whether it's 2017, 2020, or 2025, doesn't really make a difference, because as the world demand exceeds the world supply, the cost of gasoline for internal combustion engine cars will be prohibitively expensive."

Those sentiments are being increasingly echoed by other auto industry executives. Prior to his resignation last year as the Chairman and CEO of General Motors, Rick Wagoner opened the 2008 Detroit Auto Show with the following statement:

“..the auto industry has a lot of balls in the air right now when it comes to the future of automotive propulsion, and for very good reason. Earlier this month, the price of oil hit a hundred-dollars-a-barrel, as demand for energy around the world is growing faster than supply.

“And that's not just a cyclical phenomenon. . . it's structural, given the growth in emerging economies, which we fully expect to continue.

“Here's an amazing statistic: on a global basis, to satisfy all energy needs, we're consuming roughly 1,000 barrels of oil every single second. . . and the rate of consumption continues to grow. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the world will need about 70 percent more energy in 2030 than it did in 2004.

“Now, when you consider these facts in light of the world's heavy reliance on oil for automotive transportation. . . in the U.S. , for example, 96 percent reliance on oil. . . we have to ask ourselves. . . what does all this mean for the global auto industry? For us at GM, the answer is perfectly clear. As a business necessity, and an obligation to society. . . we need to develop alternative sources of propulsion. . . based on diverse sources of energy. . . to meet the world's growing demand for our products.”

In Britain, an industry task force released a report two weeks ago that warned we could begin seeing global oil production constraints in five year's time.  Deutsche Bank sees maximum global production capacity peaking at 90 million barrels a day in 2016.  Macquarie Bank executive Ian Reed sees spare production capacity evaporating by 2012. CIBC's former chief economist, Jeff Rubin is warning that oil will go to more than $200 a barrel by the end of this year. Our own Energy Information Agency estimates the average price of a barrel of oil this year will be 31% higher than 2009, topping $80 barrel.

These are troubling forecasts. It is immaterial that we believe them or even want to wish they were not true. These world oil reserve forecasts will drive automobile and energy industry planning, and they will, by default, drive government energy policy. Clearly the world's largest oil company intends to be a player in the world's next economic boom cycle when Exxon/Mobil advertises its investment in key technologies found in all electric car batteries and algae-based ethanol. British Petroleum now refers to its letters as "Beyond Petroleum.”

So where do golf carts and neighborhood electric vehicles fit in this picture? They are the start of an inevitable transition not just in where and how we fuel our vehicles; but more importantly, how we use them, how we view them. I could regale you with numerous examples of people parking their gasoline cars and using low-speed vehicles in their place from Los Angeles to Houston to Boston, because they are more convenient, more task-oriented, and cheaper to run.

LB 1100 and LB 1004 represent an acknowledgment of this shift in thinking by Nebraskans. No, not every one will want or have a need for a golf car or NEV, but those who do, should be given the opportunity to do so without fear of breaking the law.

Madame Chairman, I urge the committee to reconcile these two bills, asking only three things: that you allow local jurisdictions to decide on whether or not golf cars permitted operation on public streets should be required to install seat belts. I believe this is important for public safety. I recommend that the reconciled bill permit both classes of vehicles to cross roads with speed limits greater than 35 mph. And finally I ask that low-speed vehicles -- NEVs -- be permitted to operate during nighttime hours. To restrict their operation to daytime only, limits their functionality. Unlike golf cars, they are fully equipped by federal law to operate after dark.

I thank you for your time and if you have any questions, I would be delighted to respond.

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