Remember that cute little Jeep lookin’ Mini Moke from a British WWII military vehicle development program? It’s been repeated in several incarnations since then, but the most recent (and most stateside) is Moke America, which aims to take Americans from big gas-guzzlers to fun little open-top electric cars.
The only catch is that these aren’t really electric cars.
Oh, they’re electric. They’re just not “cars,” at least not in the traditional sense.
They fit into what is known in the US as a Low Speed Vehicle class (often popularly known as a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle).
LSVs are a federally defined class of four-wheeled vehicles. They don’t have to be electric, but today 99.9% of them are because it’s simply easier to produce that way thanks to less regulation on emissions standards. In fact, the LSV class already has comically few rules to begin with.
There are basic safety requirements, such as production in NHTSA registered plants and including certain DOT certified safety equipment such as specific windshield glass, reversing cameras, EV pedestrian warning sounds and seat belts. But there is no crash test. No light tests. No brake test. Not much testing at all. As long as they meet basic manufacturing and certification requirements and travel at top speeds between 20-25 mph, they’re pretty much golden (which is also why Chang Li vehicles and other imported Chinese mini EVs are almost never street legal in the US because they unable to meet these DOT and NHTSA certification requirements).
But the CEO and founder of Moke America, Todd Rome, says he’s the real deal and that they are assembled for each customer at the company’s factory in Sarasota, Florida. In fact, according to federal LSV laws, the small vehicles are street legal on most US roads with a speed limit of up to 35 mph (56 kph), according to US LSV statutes.
Moke America’s vehicles, simply referred to as “Mokes”, offer a top speed of 40 km/h thanks to their 7.5 kW continuous power and 15 kW peak power electric motors.
A 12 kWh lead-acid battery offers a full electric range of 40 miles and can be recharged from a conventional wall outlet, although the lead-acid battery technology is almost as old as the original WWII Mini Mokes.
According to Rome, the company has sold more than 4,000 Mokes since its inception in 2016, bringing in more than $100 million in revenue (though it’s unclear whether that’s just US sales or total international sales). If that sounds like a lot of money for not many vehicles, you’re right. But there is a simple explanation. Each is ridiculously expensive.
A Moke starts at just under $22,000. And that’s for the bare base model. Do you want tunes? A stereo costs extra. Do you want floor mats? That’s extra too.
But if you’re cool with a basic model to cruise around you and three friends in style, you can do it for just $21,975. Well, plus 3% shipping. And additional delivery costs. And of course the 4% credit card surcharge.
Okay, so the cost is starting to add up to north of $24k here, but apparently that hasn’t stopped thousands of other people.
And they sure look nice, but if the marketing video below is to be believed, it seems that the most frequent customers are blonde women driving to their yoga classes.
But in all seriousness, this class of vehicle has real utility in the right location. While a 25mph vehicle won’t help you much on your highway commute, there are other major markets in the US where slower and simpler EVs can come in quite handy. City dwellers living in busy urban areas, coastal and island communities, gated neighborhoods and sprawling suburbs are all important markets for LSVs.
Isn’t that just a golf cart?
This is one of the most common questions I get when dealing with LSVs. And the answer is “no, not really”.
Golf carts have almost no rules. LSVs may have minimal rules, but they are there. And that’s the big difference, besides the fact that most golf carts struggle to hit 20 mph, while an LSV can go all the way to a blistering 40 mph.
Golf carts are also not street legal, at least not officially. They are illegal on public roads in the US unless a local state or city ordinance has specifically made an exception for them, which is sometimes the case in coastal or gulf communities. Many authorities look the other way because there are more important things than giving a mother a ticket to drive her child on a golf cart to a friend’s house on the other side of the neighborhood. But technically, that mother is committing a felony. LSVs, on the other hand, are street legal for such use (as long as the road is marked with a speed limit of 35 mph or less).
Occasionally you’ll see golf carts advertised as street-legal models, but those are actually LSVs. They have gone through the manufacturing certification process and are fitted with DOT approved parts such as seat belts and windshields. Interestingly, though, most “street-legal” golf carts are actually no longer street-legal, as they don’t include backup cameras and noisemakers that have been federally mandated in LSVs for a few years now, but that’s likely to change as manufacturers slowly roll back to current laws.
So LSVs look like golf carts? Yes. But are they golf carts? No. They’re somewhere between a golf cart and a car, but they don’t fit into either class, legally or functionally.
A growing option
LSVs represent a minuscule, minuscule number of four-wheel vehicles on the road today. They are a drop in the proverbial bucket. But that decline is increasing.
Slowly but surely, more options are emerging in the US from distributors who want to offer an alternative to full-size electric cars.
Such LSVs are attractive to drivers who want a closed and weatherproof vehicle with better safety protection than an electric bicycle or e-motorcycle, but who do not have the high purchase costs and insurance requirements of full size electric vehicles.
The industry still seems to be figuring out how to strike that balance, with a $22,000 electric Jeep-lite perhaps falling a little north of the sweet spot when it comes to value for money.
But as more models enter the market and the vehicle class becomes more accessible, shrinking electric cars could become an interesting new addition to neighborhoods across the US.
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