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The Beauty of Slow Driving: Living With a Golf Cart As a Second Car (VIDEO)

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Summering in a retirement community (where I've spent the past 3 years visiting my parents) takes some getting used to -- life is no longer about "what do you do?" but about "what did you do?" -- and while I, at 40, am still far short of retirement, I love to play life review with a demographic researchers have found to be one of the happiest.

But it's not all looking backward, many of the third agers in my parent's over-55 planned community have shifted into a period of reinvention that looks surprisingly like the eco-DIY movements more associated with a younger demographic: they grow their own vegetables, swap consumerism for enrichment activities (art, yoga, swimming) and stop driving so much or so far.

Retirees As Early EV Adopters

It makes sense that it was here that I met my first EV owners who have allowed an electric vehicle to not just transform their gas bill or carbon footprint, but completely reshape the way they move about.

"Right now I've got the air conditioning on," joked near-retiree Rick Owen as he took me for a ride this week in his door-less EV. "During the winter there are doors we can put on it, but during the summer, especially in Cloverdale, just take the doors off and feel the breeze".

His door-less vehicle is technically a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV), or Low Speed Vehicle -- a USDOT category for vehicles capable of reaching 20mph with a maximum speed of 25mph or 35mph, state depending -- but most people just call it by what they know.

"All of our friends are saying 'what did you buy that for, you bought a golf cart,'" explains Rick's wife Gloria. "My son even said, 'you bought a golf cart?'"

Off Turf

The Owens' GEM car (Global Electric Motorcar) does resemble a golf cart, especially without the doors (Rick stores them in the attic for the summer), but the Owens didn't buy it for the turf, rather as an alternative to their second car.

"We were a little concerned about getting rid of one of the cars and having this as our only second vehicle so we bought it before we planned to get rid of the second car to kind of give it a try-out," explains Gloria. "For the first 5, 6 weeks we are very, very pleased. I kept a log, or at least I tried to keep a log, of when we would need a second car, I haven't logged one entry, not one".

Enough Car for the Average American

On face value, the Owen's NEV seems restrictive: limited range (30 miles), limited speed (25mph, or 28mph on the downhills), no highway travel and you've got to plug-in, but the couple doesn't feel inconvenienced.
  • Plugging-in: They plug into a regular outlet in the garage and usually need less than an hour for a "fill up". After our drive it was at 60% and Rick said it would take just 15 minutes to top it off.
  • Slowing down: They don't mind being limited to 25mph in a town where -- like most towns -- the maximum speed limit is 35mph (except one tiny corner).
  • Thinking range: Even the car's range of 30 miles isn't a problem as most of their trips are within a few miles. That is in keeping with the travel habits of most Americans: according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, 63% of our daily trips are within 5 miles of home.

The Benefits of Slow Driving

Besides saving on gas, insurance and maintenance (electric motors have less parts), the Owens are learning there are benefits to being slow and silent. "You'll notice as we go along that we get a lot of smiles if not outright laughter," he tells me as he waves and greets nearly everyone he passes.

After an initial tryout period, the Owens are now ready to get rid of their truck, which would leave them with a Prius and an NEV and in grave danger of appearing, well, smug (see my post Praying to the Prius). "We are feeling pretty smug about it," laughs Gloria, "everyone's teasing us, but we're loving it".

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