Vehicles

Greener Fleets: How to Buy the Right Vehicles

Jon LeSage
Posted on August 1, 2008

While adding “green” vehicles to chauffeured transportation fleets hasinterested operators somewhat in recent years, it’s now become a constant topic and pursuit. Clients are asking for hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles more often as many operators and their staffs seek more ways to improve the environment. While gas prices skyrocket, governments are pushing regulations that limit mileage and emissions.

Although the media promotes plenty of green coverage, operators remain unclear on which green vehicles make the most sense. They haven’t tested these new vehicles enough to develop clear plans. Hybrids are a top candidate as companies try out the Toyota Prius and Camry, the Chevrolet Tahoe, the Lexus RX and LS, and other hybrid options. Flex-fuel Chevrolet Suburbans are being used in fleets, especially if ethanol fuel stations are accessible nearby. Vehicles fueled by natural gas, propane, and bio-diesel are other possibilities being tested in fleets.

METRO CARS FUELING UP WITH PROPANE

Metro Cars, based in Taylor, Mich., has been converting much of its fleet over to propane vehicles, says Jeff Pardonnet, general manager. Metro Cars has converted more than 85 vehicles in its Detroit-area operation and expects to increase up to 145 units in the next few months. The conversion process will roll out to its Florida operations, where the company expects to eventually convert to about 1,100 units including sedans, taxicabs, full-size vans, and cutaway mini-buses. So far, the company has converted Lincoln Town Cars, Ford E350 vans, and Ford E450 minibuses over to propane in its Michigan office.

How did Metro Cars choose propane? The company began searching for alternative-fuel options several years ago to control expenses and to be a positive corporate citizen, Pardonnet says. Metro Cars liked the ability to install the vehicle fuel conversion kits in-house, the cost of propane, and the willingness of a supplier to work with the company to develop the necessary delivery process.

It costs Metro Cars about $4,500 to convert a sedan over to propane power; as for timing, it takes a day and a half to convert a sedan and up to five days for a mini-bus. The company has installed, or is working on installing, propane fueling stations at its largest facility locations. “These stations meet all state and local requirements and are retail compliant,” Pardonnet says.

How do these vehicles compare to gasoline? “It’s our experience that propane has a decrease in efficiency of approximately 18% versus gasoline,” he says. “However, this decrease is more than offset by the positive impact on the environment, and although propane costs have marginally increased, they have been much more stable than the gasoline market.”

And what about operating these propane vehicles over time? “The major issues we have seen to date are related to gasket failure and corroded electrical connections, as well as making adjustments to computer settings,” he says. “We do have active units with more than 100,000 miles that function very well.”

Clients are giving Metro Cars positive feedback about riding in propane-powered vehicles, but some have safety concerns. “We’ve had clients that were concerned with riding in a vehicle that’s equipped with propane storage tanks, but we continue our education process to make our clientele comfortable. . . and continue to reassure them of the safety of the system,” Pardonnet says.

NATURAL GAS ANOTHER VIABLE OPTION

Operator members of the Limousine Environmental Action Partners (LEAP) want to reduce vehicle emissions as much as possible and take advantage of new technologies as they come off the line, says Patricia Charla, LEAP president. “Hybrids are a natural place to start — there are more coming out and are adaptable,” she says. “Operators are also investigating natural gas powered vehicles, such as Town Cars. Natural gas is the next good step — a pathway to fueling hydrogen cars.”

LEAP has partnered with LimoGreen, which provides compressed natural gas converted Lincoln Town Cars to limousine operators. LimoGreen, based in New York City, is also working with Aleph Computer on a system that will allow end users to order natural gas-powered vehicles and track their environmental effects, says Dean Sloane, managing director of LimoGreen.

LimoGreen also is partnering with Empire Coachworks, based in East Brunswick, N.J., on developing natural gas powered Town Car limousines.

“Using compressed natural gas (CNG) is cleaner and safer, and is produced domestically,” Sloane says. These benefits can help operators sell these options to corporate clients, especially managers in the Office of Sustainability, an environmental action program being adopted by several corporations and organizations, he says.

ANALYZE ALL YOUR OPTIONS

Propane and natural gas powered conversions have their benefits, but operators need to look at all the factors that determine fleet buying decisions, says Ian Lipton, COO of Toronto-based Green Ride Global, a provider of long-term, strategic environmental sustainability solutions to a growing number of operators in the U.S. and Canada.

“In some markets, conversions may not be the way to go,” he says. There may not be enough fuel stations for CNG or propane, and CNG vehicles might need to be refueled more often than gasoline or propane powered vehicles. Bi-fuel conversions are usually better to get, giving drivers the ability to refuel on gasoline if natural gas or propane stations are far away. And CNG and propane vehicles are cleaner burning, require fewer oil changes, and have lower maintenance costs than traditional gas-powered vehicles, he says.

It’s important for operators to look at their typical fleet mileage and choose alternatives accordingly, Lipton says. Many transportation companies drive 85% on the highway and 15% in the city, and others go 50/50 in highway/city miles. This is an important factor when deciding on hybrid vehicles, which may not be worth purchasing under certain mileage trends, he says. “It could be more effective to reduce your carbon footprint with your present fleet by changing practices,” Lipton says.

The Toyota Camry Hybrid is probably the most useful hybrid option for chauffeured transportation companies, as it offers good emission practices and works well in certain fleets such as taxis, he says. But, “there is less space in the car.”

Toronto-based operator Global Alliance has been using a hybrid Camry in its fleet for about a year, says Joe Ironi, president, and a client of Green Ride Global. The Camry was more financially affordable than some of the other hybrids, and clients have requested hybrid trips, he says. “It has a decent trunk, reasonable leg room for a hybrid, and rides along well,” Ironi says. It’s not in use as much as other fleet vehicles, but it does get requested by clients. “People order it for appearance purposes — to attend celebrity and public events,” he says.

Like many other operators, Global Alliance is testing out vehicles and its future options for meeting green fleet needs. Natural gas-powered vehicles are of interest to the company, Ironi says.

“I’ve recently met with Enbridge Gas Distribution, a large Canadian company,” he says. “We’re looking at converting some of our vehicles.” Ironi considers the pluses and minuses of this alternative fuel option — the number of fuel stations in the area, the cost per mile compared to gasoline, the convenience of refueling for chauffeurs on duty, and other factors. Like many North American operators, Ironi examines all the issues and asks all the right questions for moving forward.

[SIDEBAR]

MTC Limousine Playing Leadership Role with GM JOSEPH BRUNETTO, vice president of fleet & technology for Bedford Hills, N.Y.-based MTC Limousine, has become active in the hydrogen fuel cell conversion community, and considers every option coming up for his company’s fleet.

He’s been test driving the GM Equinox Fuel Cell, and likes the results he’s been getting. In this photo, Brunetto is standing in the center, and on the left is Steve Marlin, driver relationship manager for the Equinox, and on the right is Brad Beauchamp, team project leader for Project Driveway at the GM Training Center in New York.

GM asked Brunetto to speak at this year’s New York Auto Show and discuss how these upcoming products affect the industry. “The feedback for both platforms was overwhelmingly positive,” he says, “especially when speaking to corporate individuals that are very concerned about their company’s carbon footprint.”

Brunetto also has brought over other current alternative options to the MTC fleet, including Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrids, and flex-fuel Chevrolet Suburbans.

[END SIDEBAR]

– Jon LeSage can be reached at [email protected]

Related Topics: alt fuel vehicles, Chevrolet, CNG, fuel efficiency, General Motors, Global Alliance, Green Ride Global, hybrid vehicles, hydrogen fuel, LEAP, LimoGreen, natural gas vehicles, propane vehicles

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