Are golf carts the future of electric vehicles?

Despite plummeting gas prices, more and more Americans are driving electric vehicles instead of cars. But we're not talking about a Tesla or another trendy hybrid. They're driving low-speed electric vehicles, more commonly known as golf carts. Many look more like miniature hot rods than a vehicle to get around golf greens.

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"I own two golf carts, one for me to go golfin' in and one for me to take her out to dinner and to take her shopping," said Gary Search, a retiree from Pennsylvania.

Since moving to The Villages, Florida, Search traded in his car for a golf cart to get around town. It's not a generic model. His tricked-out California Roadster has safety features including seat belts, turn signals and disc brakes.

"We can get to all the rec centers, we can get to all the doctors, we can get to the hospitals," Search said. "So we prefer to cruise around in our golf carts."

The Villages is a planned community catering to 55-year-olds and older, with town squares, golf courses, shopping areas and restaurants all connected by cart paths. There are actually more carts than cars there, and because they are using their car less, Search and his wife, Debbie, now only fill up their car with gas once a month.

"With over 60,000 golf carts in The Villages, it's a major form of transportation for most of the people," Search said as he tooled around a town square in his candy-apple-red roadster.

Despite having a top speed of 25 miles per hour, Search said he saves a lot of money since his carts are electric-powered.

"I take it home, plug it in, it's ready to go the next morning. And off we go," he said.

The 66-year-old said his cart goes about 60 miles between charges, and the money saved is spent on the sticker price of the cart themselves.

"You can buy a car, at times, a brand-new car, for less than you spend on these golf carts," Search said.

Tim Carroll bought his first "street legal" six years ago and said you have to be more careful when driving off the community cart paths.

"You have to be more aware when you're on the roads because obviously we're a smaller vehicle, and cars think that you're a golf cart, they think that you're slower, so they try to beat you through intersections," Carroll said. "So you do have to be a little more diligent when you're driving, you have to watch what you're doing and you need to watch the other guy."

A retiree from New York City, Carroll said he and his wife took advantage of a federal tax break when they moved to Florida in 2009 that allowed him to write off $5,400 on his return. But there are additional costs in the form of registering the street-legal golf carts with the state and for more expensive auto insurance premiums versus the cost of the premium under a homeowner's insurance policy for those carts not being driven on the street.

To buy either version, many shoppers go see the "Golf Cart Man," of course. Tony Coangelo Sr. used to sell cars. Now he owns one of two dealerships in The Villages that sell only golf carts. His "wheels" have been shipped as far away as Alaska and Canada.

For the right price, Coangelo will build whatever the buyer wants, from a cart version of a classic Chevy to a vintage Mustang. He said his clients range from 59 to 99 years old and is so proud of the carts that he believes they can serve more than one purpose.

"I wanted to make coffins out of these golf carts. People would buy them all day. What is the difference between a coffin and a casket if you're put [in] a coffin and it looks like this?" Coangelo said. "It would look great. It is just what people would do. I would rather be buried in my car than a coffin. Wouldn't you? That's what it is all about."

Bill Talley was born and raised in Atlanta and went to Georgia Tech and since retirement always wanted a replica of the Georgia Tech Ramblin' Wreck. So he drove three hours from his Jacksonville home and gave Coangelo $17,000 for a "look-a-like" 1934 Ford.

"This is how I go to the dining room, this is how I go to entertainment, this is how I take people to and from and go to the post office," Talley said. "This is my chariot."

Not only does the 80-year-old think his cart is better than his car for doing most errands, it has gadgets his car doesn't have.

"The main thing I wanted was a horn that would play tunes because I wanted to be able to play the 'Ramblin' Wreck' fight song. And I got that," Talley said.

Regardless of cost, Harvard Business School fellow Thomas Bartman said the use of low-speed electric vehicles, or LSEVs, are on the rise -- even in urban areas.

"We're seeing demand for low-speed electric vehicles in three places," Bartman said. "The first is where people don't need all the performance of a traditional car. Those are most common thought of college campuses or in the neighborhoods of the Sun Belt - the golfing communities. In those places, you're not going very far, you're not driving very fast, and so a low-speed electric vehicle is actually better for you than a car.

"The second place that we're seeing demand grow is in very unique applications where the low-speed electric vehicle actually performs better than a traditional vehicle," Bartman said. "An example of that is delivery vehicles in New York City. You're starting to see big package deliverers and other distribution companies moving towards these smaller format electric vehicles because they actually perform better.

"The third place we're seeing a lot of demand build is actually in emerging markets. And these are in places where people don't have access to a traditional car," Bartman said. "So if you think about somewhere like China, there are a lot of people that can't afford a traditional car. Their best opportunities are walking, public transit or a motorcycle or a moped. And so for them, they're delighted to have a low-speed electric vehicle."

Cities including Los Angeles and New York have lowered speed limits, making the use of these vehicles more viable. Gary Search thinks everyone can benefit from The Villages' lead.

"There's over 100,000 people here that live in The Villages. And you'll see at least half, if not more than half, are driving golf carts all around town," Search said. "So I think this could be a footprint for other cities to take a look at and say, could we decrease the amount of traffic and parking spaces? Two golf carts fit into one parking space. So it eliminates parking problems and I think the whole space issue within cities."

Bartman said it's difficult to measure sales of LSEVs in the U.S. because they're not counted as golf carts and they're not counted as cars.

"The best statistic we have comes out of China. And last year in China, 400,000 low-speed electric vehicles were sold. That compares to 84,000 hybrids and traditional electric vehicles. They expect that market to grow 50 percent per year, reaching a million sold by 2020," Bartman said.