Don't Honk — Golf Cart Is Really a Car 

click to enlarge street22_electric_call_100.jpg

Next time you get stuck in traffic behind Daniel O'Brien's golf cart, think twice before you extend that one-finger salute. O'Brien may be slow, but he also may be driving the future of the auto industry -- oh, and that's no golf cart.

Indeed, that's a genuine Chrysler product, and the correct term is not golf cart, it's "neighborhood electric vehicle." Built as a low-speed runaround with an electronically restricted top speed of 25 mph, it's street legal (an available upgrade allows the car to achieve a lightning-fast 40 mph).

"We got it about a month ago," says O'Brien, who's been interested for years in electric cars and finally got the itch to do something about it with gas prices pushing $4 a gallon. "We were looking for something we could afford, too."

What he could afford on his fixed income — he and his mom, Dorothy Wade, both work for Ukrop's Super Markets — was less than $5,000. He bought the car, a 2002 Global Electric Motor Car, from Virginia Golf Cars in Harrisonburg.

Legally it's subject to most of the same regulations. O'Brien had to register it with the Department of Motor Vehicles, get car insurance and pay his county vehicle taxes. But there's one bonus: no required vehicle inspection.

Don't expect long lines of golf carts — er, cars — around town anytime soon, says George Hoffer, an economics professor who specializes in transportation issues at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The electric car has always been the messiah — the messiah that has never come," he says, harking back to 1900 and the birth of the automobile when gas, steam and electric vied for the market. The turn-of-the-century electric car "would go about 20 miles an hour for 20 or 30 miles. Now, a hundred years later-plus, and we can't really do too much better than 20 or 30 miles. …

"The electric car has gone virtually nowhere in 100 years."

But it's coming again. The auto industry expects to launch a new generation of electric plug-in cars by 2010 — beginning with the Chevy Volt. In the meantime, some people simply can't wait.

"It gets a lot of attention, and people ask you lots of questions," says O'Brien, adding that most people are more curious than angry to be stuck behind his golf car in traffic. "Most people are cool about it."

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