Tiny electric vehicles spark safety dispute

LOS ANGELES — Joanna Volz says she loves driving the hilly streets of Berkeley, Calif., in her new GEM, a rakish open-air electric vehicle that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a pickup in caricature.

Pedestrians wave. Motorists honk. Nearly everyone stares. Purring along at the GEM’s maximum, governed speed of 25 mph, the wind in her hair and the passing scenery so accessible, Volz says the vehicle has put a lot of enjoyment back into driving.

“The GEM has limitations, but the biggest problem it has caused for me is people stopping me on the road, saying ‘I’ve been looking for this for years — where can I get one?’ ” said the 55-year-old Volz, a clerk in the San Francisco public defender’s office.

That must be music to the ears of executives at General Electric Motorcars, the DaimlerChrysler subsidiary that makes the GEM line of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, or NEVs. Like Ford Motor Co.’s Th!nk brand, Lee Iacocca’s Lido Motors USA and other, smaller companies, GEM is working to create a market for NEVs to meet California’s zero-emission mandate.

But the mandate, which dictates that zero-emission vehicles make up 2 percent of major automakers’ sales in the state by 2003, could result in tens of thousands of the thin-skinned NEVs jostling their way into the nation’s vehicle mix in the next few years.

Safety concerns

Although it’s impossible to predict how many of the small electric vehicles will be on the roads anytime soon — the industry says it is gearing up to produce at least 42,000 units in 2002 — 34 states and the District of Columbia have authorized them for 35 mph public roads.

But because the vehicles do not meet federal crash standards and are not required to have airbags, doors or horns, many industry observers warn that the addition of significant numbers of them to traffic creates a danger.

“They’re going to needlessly expose a lot of people to serious injury,” said David Snyder, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association, a lobbying group. “This undercuts the federal motor vehicle safety standards, which were so hard won. We think it’s a terrible idea.”

Even Volz said she wouldn’t use her GEM if she had children.

“You really are exposed,” she said. “A side collision would be horrific. You don’t have a door, so you’d have somebody’s grill in your lap.”

Manufacturers of the small electric cars say their vehicles meet all applicable federal safety standards — a claim analysts and safety advocates such as Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen, dismiss as misleading and dishonest.

“They aren’t the same federal standards other vehicles have,” says Claybrook, who was NHTSA administrator from 1977 through 1981. “I think they’re a hazard.”

No bumper required

In 1998, largely at the prodding of Bombardier Inc., a Canadian manufacturer that since has stopped making the small electrics, NHTSA created standards for four-wheeled vehicles with top speeds of 20 mph to 25 mph. They require only that the vehicle have a windshield; lap or lap-and-shoulder seat belts that meet regular federal standards; headlights; brake lights; turn signals; a parking brake; and rearview mirrors.

Doors and bumpers are not required.

NHTSA left it to individual states to establish performance requirements for the parking brake, mirrors and lights “until we can establish performance requirements.”

NHTSA declined to set bumper standards because, it said, they could interfere with the vehicles’ maneuvering on golf courses. And horns are not required on the nearly silent NEVs because, according to NHTSA’s final rule: “A horn has been standard equipment on every motor vehicle since the earliest days of motor vehicles. Accordingly, there does not appear to be a need to require one for (low-speed vehicles).”

But most alarming to safety advocates and analysts is that the vehicles are not subject to federal or insurance industry crash-test ratings. NHTSA lawyer Taylor Vinson says that’s because the federal safety agency is not responsible for ensuring the safety of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.

“It’s up to the individual towns and the states to decide whether to allow them on the roads, and in what condition,” he says.

And NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd suggests the vehicles don’t need to be as safe as regular vehicles. “You’re not going to be driving them into a wall at 30 mph, or be struck by a car at 30 mph. They’re not meant for that purpose,” he says.

Joe Nolan, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit, industry-funded research organization that conducts crash tests, concedes that the small electric vehicles have “not been on our radar at all.”

“But now that these things are becoming mainstream, it’s something for us to think about,” he says. “I don’t know where we’ll come out on this. Our concern is that these vehicles potentially can be in mixed traffic, and that probably won’t be a good situation.”

California’s Air Resources Board effectively created the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle segment when it issued a zero-emissions mandate, and then offered manufacturers clean-air credits for building such vehicles. But board Chairman Alan Lloyd makes it clear he feels no responsibility for NEV safety.

“We’re pushing for zero-emission vehicles, but how the industry responds is really up to them,” Lloyd says. “Then it’s up to the public to decide whether to buy them, and the industry to have the protections they need for a new vehicle.”

On his staff, Lloyd says, some people have said they’d love to use the small electric cars. Others say they “wouldn’t feel safe” sharing some roads with bigger, faster vehicles. “So I think it comes down to an individual choice,” he says.

GM files suit

The manufacturers acknowledge that in a contest between a sport-utility and a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, the little car will not come out well.

General Motors has filed suit to overturn the California mandate in part because it raises “significant safety issues” by encouraging production of large numbers of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.

The suit was dismissed Nov. 7 — not because of the merits of the challenge, said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, but because the California board has not made its mandate final. GM hasn’t decided whether to refile the lawsuit the after the mandate specifics are made final, he said.

“We don’t have an issue with the safety of a neighborhood electric vehicle per se, because they fulfill a very important need in many communities,” he says.

“Our issue is the proliferation of these kinds of vehicles in large numbers and competing for road space with larger, full-sized vehicles like Expeditions, Tahoes, Land Rovers, or whatever.”

GM also argues that using Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to earn credits toward California’s zero-emission vehicle mandate contradicts a central goal of the mandate: to replace conventional gasoline-powered vehicles with advanced-technology vehicles.

“We just don’t think that a golf cart represents advanced technology by any stretch of the imagination,” Barthmuss said.

Larry Oswald, a DaimlerChrysler executive who is CEO of GEM, suggests the safety concerns about the small electrics may be overblown. For example, he says, millions of motorcycles already are in use on the nation’s roads, and “motorcycles have the ability to drive on any roads at any velocity.”

But that’s hardly a comforting comparison. There were 27.3 motorcycle fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the United States last year, up from 23.7 in 1999, according to NHTSA. In contrast, the number of fatalities in passenger vehicles fell to 1.3 per 100 million vehicle miles, from 1.8 in 1999.

Oswald, vice president of DaimlerChrysler’s hybrid and electric vehicle team, points out that adding the safety features of a regular car to Neighborhood Electric Vehicles “would drive great weight and expense into these vehicles, and defeat the purpose.”

‘It’s weird looking’

That’s the dilemma. But Kevin Breen, chair of a committee on special-purpose vehicles for the Society of Automotive Engineers, contends the small vehicles have a safety feature that shouldn’t be overlooked: their gawkiness. They stand out in traffic, he says.

“Yes, there’s a big weight difference, and because they’re occupying the same traffic areas as larger vehicles, there’s the potential for collisions,” Breen says. “But they look different, they’re shaped different … and there’s a different expectation than when you climb into a full-sized automobile.”

Volz agrees. “It’s taller than most cars, and it’s weird enough looking that it catches people’s eyes, so I get kind of a wide berth,” she says.

Tom Zabriskie, who sold Volz her GEM, describes the car as “safe as milk.”

“You don’t cut in front of people, you don’t run stop signs, you don’t do anything crazy like you do in a big car,” says Zabriskie, a salesman for Quality Car Co. in Orange County, Calif.

“You can smell the flowers, though you do get a breath of diesel every so often.”

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