They look like souped-up golf carts and are often seen as an environmentally friendly way to get around the neighborhood or go grocery shopping.
But they could also be death traps, according to a prominent safety watchdog group.
So-called low-speed or neighborhood electric vehicles made by Chrysler Group and another manufacturer badly failed a series of crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which on Thursday is planning to call for greater federal safety oversight.
Nearly every state allows the vehicles and similar “mini-trucks” on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower. Rules for operating the vehicles are generally covered by state code, outside the federal regulatory framework that governs motor vehicle safety standards.
“These vehicles were designed for use in closed communities. They aren’t for driving across town to the grocery store. If that’s what people are going to do with them, the federal government needs to think about what additional crash protection should be built into the vehicles,” said David Zuby, the institute’s chief research officer.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has denied several petitions to establish a new class of “medium speed” vehicles capable of speeds up to 35 mph, but otherwise has stayed out of the debate.
But the vehicles, which in some configurations can carry up to six passengers, are increasingly making it onto heavily traveled roads as state and local governments encourage green methods of transportation.
Indeed, that’s the way Chrysler is pitching the vehicles. Chrysler Group Global Electric Motorcars, a subsidiary of Chrysler, is the world’s largest producer of such low-speed electric vehicles.
In a recent statement, Steve Bartoli, Chrysler’s head of regulatory affairs and engineering planning, said the Gem “is a successful example of how Chrysler Group is reducing CO2 emissions while answering customer needs for alternatively powered vehicles.”
There are about 45,000 such vehicles on the road, according to a 2008 Energy Department estimate. The vehicles qualify for up to a $2,500 tax credit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Some states also offer additional tax incentives, including California, which provides rebates of $1,000 to $1,350 on various Gem models, according to the California Center for Sustainable Energy.
The Chrysler subsidiary, based in Fargo, N.D., has sold more than 41,000 vehicles worldwide since its founding in 1998. Prices range from $7,000 to $13,000.
The automaker said the Gem is an inexpensive, environmentally clean vehicle for low-speed environments and noted that its models comply with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s standards for such vehicles.
But green doesn’t always mean safe, said Zuby, who recommended that motorists concerned about the environment look at crashworthy hybrid vehicles or soon-to-be-launched electric cars such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf.
Low-speed vehicles are typically built with plastic body panels and lack reinforced steel and other safety measures of a regular motor vehicle.
NHTSA established safety standards for the vehicles in 1998, saying they were to be used on “short trips for shopping, social and recreational purposes primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses.”
They must have a top speed of at least 20 mph but no faster than 25 mph, and they are required to have headlights, taillights, stoplights, turn signals, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, safety belts and vehicle identification numbers.
The agency said it was aware of the safety issue.
“NHTSA appreciates that electric low-speed vehicles have environmental benefits and is continuing to look at these benefits as well as safety ramifications involving low-speed vehicles,” it said in a statement.
In one test, the insurance institute subjected a Gem e2 electric vehicle to a collision equivalent to being hit by a full-size sport utility vehicle or pickup truck going 31 mph. The test dummies indicated that anyone travelling in the Gem most likely would have died, Zuby said.
In another test, the institute crashed the vehicle into a Smart Fortwo. It picked the Smart because it is the smallest legal passenger car that a Gem or similar vehicle might collide with on U.S. roads.
“It showed very bad results for the people in the Gem. But when we crash two Smarts together the dummies measure that people easily survive,” Zuby said.
A Changan Tiger Star mini-truck failed similar tests.
“There’s a world of difference between vehicles that meet crashworthiness standards and those that don’t,” Zuby said. “It may be time for Congress to step in.”