With growing environmental concerns and advancements in battery technology, the simple battery-powered golf cart has transformed into a quasi-street legal cruiser with car-like features. In 1998 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) designated a new class of motor vehicle, the low-speed vehicle or neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), and allowed them on streets with a maximum posted speed limit of 35 mph.
This opened transportation possibilities in tourist areas and beach communities looking to curb congestion by using alternatives to traditional gas-powered autos.
Rental agencies—from San Francisco, Maui and Key West to the islands off the coast of Georgia and Texas — began springing up to meet the need.
Golf Carts – the Next Generation
The latest NEVs are governed to reach a top speed of 25 miles per hour and hold a charge for 30 to 40 miles. Most can be fully recharged with a standard 110-volt outlet in about seven hours. They run on traditional deep-cycle lead acid batteries, which provide an average life expectancy of three years.
Models vary by manufacturer and range from two to eight seats with various storage configurations.
To satisfy NHTSA’s safety criteria for street operation, NEVs are equipped with three-point seat belts, windshields and windshield wipers, running lights, headlights, brake lights, reflectors, rearview mirrors and turn signals.
Most NEVs, especially those used for tourist rentals, are doorless open-air affairs, though a market is being established of electric vehicles that more closely resemble cars. These all-season vehicles have fully enclosed aluminum alloy frames, sophisticated batteries, longer charges and features such as heat, air conditioning and audio systems.
Major manufacturers include Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motor Cars (GEM), ZAP, makers of cars and scooters, Columbia ParCar, Dynasty Electric Car, Barton Investment Group and Miles Electric Vehicles, to name just a few.
Satisfying the Island Demand
Chris Godfrey, David Scarbrough, Brent Palmer and Scot Harris, co-owners of NEV rental operation Red Rock Electric Company, started renting NEVs in the Savannah, Ga., area and nearby Tybee Island in June 2007.
Red Rock rents the GEM four-passenger e4 but has plans to integrate a model with a back bed to include two surfboards with the rental of the vehicle.
“We bought some used 2005 GEM models with 7,000 miles already on them and they are still our best running vehicles,” Scarbrough says. “Our four brand-new 07s are still working toward their full charge range, but we have no complaints.”
Integral to Red Rock’s startup were fellow Georgia NEV renters Clayton Porter and Richard Van Iderstyne of Jekyll Island-based Red Bug Motors. Initially started as a means of shuttling people from the island’s airport to their lodging destination, the guys at Red Bug soon recognized the demand for the cars from all visitors.
When developers wanted to tear down the Jekyll Island airport to build condominiums in its place, retirees Porter and Van Iderstyne took matters into their own hands to stave off the developers and attract more visitors. To do that, a pilot told them the island needed better and more transportation options.
From there Red Bug was born in April 2006 with just 10 GEM vehicles. Now 30 vehicles are split between the two locations on Jekyll Island. Three new operations are set to open in January 2008.
Red Bug’s NEVs are legal on any street on the island since the maximum speed limit is 35 mph.
On another island about 30 miles from Corpus Christi, Texas, Kathy Wilson and Jim Gaw purchased the NEV rental operation Nautical Wheelers in March of 2004.
The Port Aransas business rents 40 Barton Investment Group-manufactured NEVs that look and run very similarly to the GEM models.
Attracting the Impulse Renter
Unlike a standard car rental booked in advance, NEVs are more of an impulse rent. Red Rock, Red Bug and Nautical Wheelers all have Web pages, though Red Rock is the only one that takes online reservations.
These companies rely heavily on reaching vacationers after their arrival.
Every hotel on the island is equipped with electric vehicle charging stations. “The hotel owners on the island have been very helpful in advertising our car to their guests,” Porter says. “They market it as another offered amenity.”
Porter says Red Bug will also pick up travelers at the Jekyll Island airport and take them directly to the rental location.
Wilson and Gaw knew they needed to take action to boost business when not even three weeks after they took the business over, a gas-powered golf cart rental operation set up shop in the same town.
“We have gas-powered golf cart competition here, but in our opinion their vehicles aren’t street legal or as environmentally friendly,” Gaw says.
The vehicles themselves are the best advertisement, say Gaw and Wilson. To market the business the couple decorated the cruisers in bright paint and an eye-catching design and gave each one a unique name.
“We have a prime location on Main Street, right next to the only grocery store in town and just blocks from the beach; everyone can see us,” Gaw says. “The kids love the cars and ask for the same one by name, year after year.”
The previous owner of Nautical Wheelers spent a month working with Gaw and Wilson to teach them the ins and outs of the business before handing over the reins.