They are inexpensive, clean and reach a top speed of 25 mph. In other words, a golf cart on steroids.
The official name is "neighborhood electric vehicles" -- and supporters say they are a perfect match for Fresno.
"We've got flat topography and fairly high gas prices and pretty bad air," said Jeff Roberts, a vice president at Granville Homes, which is pushing the idea because it promotes the cars in its private Copper River Ranch development in north Fresno. "I think in the Valley it's a good fit."
One problem: The cars are prohibited on streets with speed limits of more than 35 mph.
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So Roberts has persuaded the city of Fresno to seek permission from the state to develop a neighborhood electric vehicle plan that would clear the way for special lanes, signs and other upgrades required to allow the mini-cars on more city streets.
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution last year supporting the idea, and Assembly Member Mike Villines this month introduced legislation to make it happen. Only a handful of cities in the state now have the authorization.
"This is cutting-edge. We'll be the largest city and the first city in the Central Valley to do this," said Villines, R-Clovis, whose Assembly Bill 1781 still requires Senate and Assembly approval.
Granville's Copper River Ranch development has about five miles of lanes for neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, with plans to triple that figure.
Roberts said he envisions the city adding special lanes on surrounding public streets, so residents can use the cars for quick trips to the store.
City Engineer Scott Mozier said Fresno also might target the neighborhood near Fig Garden Golf Club and possibly even downtown. But changes will come slowly, he warned. "The city does not have the funding to go out and widen streets to accommodate NEVs."
More likely, officials would find ways to add the lanes on streets that have extra space, he said. The cars would not mingle with regular traffic.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said there are some safety concerns because the cars are not built to withstand high-speed collisions with normal cars. But he generally supports the proposal if it's implemented on a limited basis.
"I think there's a way to do it and at the same time keep motorists safe," he said. "It just requires some creativity."
NEVs must meet federal performance standards and are equipped with safety features such as seat belts, turn signal lamps and parking brakes. The cars plug into a regular wall outlet and reach speeds of 20 mph to 25 mph. Chrysler's latest GEM models can run up to 30 miles on a single charge, according to the company's Web site.
At Fresno retailer Central Valley Golf & Utility Vehicles, officials recently applied for a license to sell NEVs to meet growing demand. The store plans to sell Club Car brand cars for between $8,000 and $11,000, said company president Lew Solomon. Part of the demand is the result of federal stimulus legislation, which created a tax credit of up to $2,500 for low-speed electric vehicles.
Among California cities, the NEV leader is Lincoln in Placer County. The cars were originally a hit with retirees but younger families are now using them, said Mayor Tom Cosgrove.
State lawmakers cleared the city to create NEV plans in a 2004 bill that also extended the authority to nearby Rocklin. Lincoln, population 40,060, is now home to about 7 miles of NEV lanes, and about 700 residents own the cars, Cosgrove said.
"They're a little bit more convenient than driving a conventional automobile, and people kind of like the pace," he said.