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UMN News: The model U

The University of Minnesota’s fleet service is finding that its 53 hybrid vehicles (out of 850 vehicles system-wide) are paying off. FROM UMN NEWS


It is a sweltering day outside the U’s fleet services building; so hot that the ice cubes for the free lemonade being served at the open house are melting almost as fast as I can get them into my glass. The chocolate chips in the cookies have seen better days too; sweets are often overlooked as potential casualties of climate change. Luckily for the cookies, the hybrid vehicles I’m about to test drive are fully equipped, and unlike my own car, include functional air-conditioning.

Fleet services, which rents and leases vehicles to U departments and staff, hosted a ride-and-drive event on July 16 to showcase the U’s hybrid vehicles. They’ve recently added some new models to the mix, including the Toyota Camry and Chevy Malibu hybrids. The additions bring the fleet’s hybrid total to 53 (of 850 vehicles U-wide) vehicles–one of which I hope to convince my director to drive when we go on a University Relations tour of coordinate campuses later this summer. Help us if we have to take my 1992 Honda Accord.

The U was an early adopter of hybrids with its purchase in 2001 of the Toyota Prius, and it continues to add more of the resource savvy vehicles. Bill Roberts, director of fleet services, says that he has the liberty to look at more than the upfront cost of a vehicle when making purchasing decisions. “A lot of government agencies will say ‘Well, we can’t buy that because they cost too much up front,'” says Roberts. “I mean, let’s face it–the first ones we bought were kind of a gamble, but they aren’t anymore.”

Indeed, the gamble has paid off. It’s why Roberts is sitting outside today under the shade of an awning, talking to customers and doling out cookies with his staff. Roberts says that while back in 2001, the first vehicles were about $6,000 more than a comparable gas model, the cost was made back in the high resale value of hybrids. “Depreciation wise, they’ve been as good if not better than the average vehicle. They get 50 percent better gas mileage–and, we’ve had no mechanical issues with them–so we keep adding them to the fleet.”

Sustainable U
Part of the U’s sustainability initiative includes striving to be a model campus through promoting and demonstrating sustainability. With the purchase of the Prius in 2001, the U was one of the first entities in the state to adopt hybrid technology, according to Roberts. Moreover, the U’s employees seem to have embraced the sentiment. “Every time we survey our customers (U employees) they ask for more hybrids,” says Roberts. But beyond conserving resources, hybrids are also an exciting novelty for most drivers, and simply fun.

During my test drive of the Toyota Camry, fleet services student employee Alex Nelson steps out from his lawn chair and hands me the keys, explaining I can leave them in my pocket. They simply need to be somewhere inside the car for the vehicle to recognize the unique signature. Like a knowing friend, the car even unlocks its doors as we approach, and once inside, it’s quite literally as simple as the push of a button to start. In fact, it’s more like turning on a computer than a car (and sounds more like a computer too), but as with any computer, there is a learning curve. Nelson says that he always volunteers to show renters what is different about the car. Sometimes, he notes, people decline. “I’ll say, ‘I’ll show you the car,’ and they’ll say ‘No, don’t bother,’ and after 15 minutes I’ll go out and they’re still sitting in the car and they’ll be like ‘yeah, I’ve never actually driven one–I just didn’t want to ask for help.'” I, on the other hand, practically beg for help right away. “Where is the air conditioning button?” I ask. The climate inside the Camry is heavily aligned against me, but about to rapidly change.

Climate controlled change
Fleet services uses about 300,000 gallons of fuel per year. Adding hybrids to the fleet is good not only for the environment, but for the University’s bottom line. “There are a lot of people who get reimbursed by their department [after they use their own car for travel], and we try to promote that it’s actually cheaper for their department if they take a University vehicle,” says Roberts (see cost comparison below). With a minimum daily charge and 17 cent per mile fee, the U’s rate often betters the standard mileage reimbursement of 58.5 cents per mile, not to mention the environmental benefits of a more fuel-efficient car.

Kristin Berning and Amanda Perry, training coordinators for Enterprise Systems Training at the U, often travel to coordinate campuses as part of their jobs. Soon, they’ll travel to Duluth, and so they’ve come today to try out the range of hybrids. They decide to give a Camry a test-drive, and though I’d just driven one, I decide to test out the back seat and tag along for the ride. Like me, they’re impressed with the features. When we enter the car, a welcome message scrolls across an information screen–if you like, you can even program the car to speak a greeting. “Can you program it to say, ‘Good morning, Kristin and Amanda?'” jokes Berning. “How do you turn the air on?” asks Perry, “Air on!” offers Berning, but to no avail. Like me, she would need to physically exert herself and push a button, which I happily point to based on my recent experience.

In the end, my favorite amusement had to be indulging in the Ford Escape hybrid, and I think Berning and Perry were as impressed. “This is so exciting!” says Berning. “We only have one disappointment–we thought we could steal it for the day, and go up to Taylors Falls.” As an SUV, it’s suited to just those types of excursions (minus the theft)–capable of carrying more people and cargo, but with half the guilt. I took it for a spin near fleet services, and when I came upon a closed Conoco station on 24th and Como with its pumps decommissioned, it didn’t matter. I had plenty of battery juice and gas to make it to the next one. Besides, with the A/C on I was in no hurry to get out. For more information, or to rent a fleet services vehicle, see Fleet Services.

Cost comparison

In many cases, renting a vehicle from fleet services can be less expensive than driving your own car, particularly on long trips with a fair amount of driving. Below are some cost comparisons, each using the Toyota Camry (daily charge of $45) for comparison, vs. the standard mileage reimbursement of 58.5 cents per mile.

Rochester: 170 Miles r/t

Personal vehicle reimbursement: $99.45

One-day rental: $45 plus 170 miles ($0.17 = $28.90)

U Total: $73.90

Morris or Duluth: 310 Miles r/t

Personal vehicle reimbursement: $181.35

Two-day rental: $90 plus 310 miles ($0.17 = $52.70)

U Total: $142.70

Crookston: 620 Miles r/t

Personal vehicle reimbursement: $362.70

Three-day rental: $135 plus 620 miles ($0.17 = $105.40)

U Total: $240.40

From Brief, July 30, 2008