When I talk to friends and family about electric cars, one of the first questions that comes up is about affordability. Usually, the question is phrased as something like “When will I be able to actually afford one?” It’s a fair question, because the average transaction price of electric cars in the U.S. last year was $56,437. Not because EVs are inherently expensive, but because they are being marketed as luxury vehicles with all the bells and whistles to fit every possible trip one might want to take. The second question is usually an expression of range anxiety, something few EV owners actually experience but is a barrier to adoption nonetheless.
So far, the auto industry’s response to these two concerns is to try and make The Perfect EV that addresses these contradictory consumer desires. If people are going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car, they justifiably expect it to be their only car, and therefore to do all the things cars do, which requires a longer range, which, in turn, requires a larger battery that is more expensive. It’s an unimaginative, brute force solution to the problem, and it’s not going to work.
But there is a solution. Instead of trying to make the perfect car, the other option is to make a car so low in cost that people don’t need it to do everything a car does. Fortunately, such a thing already exists. It’s called a golf cart.
OK, it’s not exactly a golf cart, but it’s pretty close. It’s called a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV). They’re typically small, golf cart-sized EVs. Some are straight up golf carts. Others look like small cars but, technologically speaking, are little more than glorified golf carts. They’re speed-limited to 25 or 35 mph depending on local laws and charge from a standard outlet (some newer NEVs also work with Level 2 EV chargers, the same ones people put in their homes to charge Teslas and whatnot, for faster charging time). Newer ones come with ranges in excess of 80 miles per charge.
But here’s the trick: With federal and state EV incentives, they could be dirt cheap. Take, for example, the Kandi K27. It looks like a car, both inside and out. It has all the basic amenities one would expect from a car like air conditioning and antilock braking. It is a car. It can fit groceries and kids and stuff. And it costs $12,000. NEVs currently don’t qualify for EV tax incentives, but they easily could with a small legal tweak. After the $7,500 federal tax incentive for EVs that’s just $4,500. Many states offer EV incentives on top of the federal one, shaving anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars off. All told, one could easily spend about the same out of pocket on a K27 as they would on a well-equipped cargo e-bike. E-bikes are great, but many people don’t feel safe riding them on roads designed for cars.
But it could get even better. With only a little bit more federal or state assistance, NEVs could be pretty damn close to free. Under Biden’s seemingly defunct Build Back Better plan, EV incentives would have increased to $12,500 for domestic union-made cars. Of course, this didn't become law, but it was part of the conversation. By providing increased incentives for NEVs, they could become close to free when it’s all said and done.
The K27 and NEVs more generally certainly have their limitations. They’re not cars made to serve all trips and needs. But at a few thousand dollars (or less) instead of a few tens of thousands of dollars, it doesn’t matter.
That being said, NEVs are real cars with real purpose. First, they are great for a surprisingly large number of trips taken by car in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 60 percent of vehicle trips are six miles or shorter. Many of these trips can be taken in an NEV, which are generally permitted on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or slower. And because of the NEVs’ low speed, you are more likely to make it there and back alive, because researchers have extensively documented the link between vehicle speed and crashes (the safety benefits of putting teens in particular in NEVs instead of faster cars during their early driving years would be profound). The NEV will cost less to use because it runs on electricity, which is cheaper than gas. And it uses less electricity than bigger, heavier EVs auto companies are currently trying to peddle, so it will be cheaper to charge, too. And, of course, because they don’t use gasoline, have much smaller batteries than standard EVs, and don’t require electricity-hungry fast charging setups, NEVs are great for the environment.
But one of the most compelling arguments for NEVs to me is that we have tangible evidence they can appeal across the ideological spectrum. This isn’t some treehugger solution to climate change. Look no further than The Villages, a massive 130,000-person retirement community in central Florida in which golf carts are one of if not the dominant modes of transportation. As Alissa Walker reported in Curbed last year, many couples move to The Villages with two gas cars, sell one, and replace it with a golf cart, keeping the other for longer trips. The houses are literally designed for this, with one regular-sized garage and another smaller one for a golf cart. The Villages is Trump territory, an area 98 percent White and just about the last place in the world one might expect to buck the American trend for huge, polluting SUVs and pickups. And yet they have, because NEVs are great, a practical, safe, and cheap way to get around urban and suburban roads alike.
Correction: A previous version of that article stated NEVs like the K27 qualify for the federal EV tax credit. They do not. Previous Kandi models sold in the U.S. that were not NEVs qualified. We regret the error, but Congress really should get on that.