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Hybrids for Hire: More Cars Mean More Options


By Rob Lovitt
MSNBC.com
January 27, 2009


Hello, is this thing on?

Trust me, when you’ve just hit the power button on a rental Toyota Prius on a
foggy day in Oakland, Calif., it’s not an unreasonable question. Outside, I can
see all of 10 feet through the murk; inside, it’s so quiet, I might as well be
wearing earplugs in a soundproof booth. Hello? Is this thing on or not?
“I know what you mean,” says Tilly, the Hertz lot agent, before offering a quick
tutorial on the workings of the car’s hybrid engine. “The first time I drove
one, it freaked me out.”

Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to figure out the car’s operation — and
to gain some insight into why the industry is rolling out more options for
hybrid rentals all the time.

Calculating fuel costs

It should come as no surprise that last summer’s soaring gas prices also boosted
the interest in fuel-efficient cars. Some renters traded down from full-size and
intermediate cars to compact and economy models. Others opted for hybrids like
the Prius, which offers a combined mpg of 46 (48 city/45 highway).

“When gas was up to $4–$5 a gallon, hybrids did quite well with consumers who
were concerned about their wallets,” says Paula Rivera, Hertz spokesperson. In
2008, she adds, reservations for cars in the company’s Green Collection (which
includes both hybrids and fuel-efficient non-hybrids) jumped 40 percent over the
year before.

And now that gas prices have come back down? With 4,000 hybrids in the Hertz
fleet, Rivera says availability has loosened up a bit: “They had been in high
demand and hard to get. Now they’re just in high demand.”

Of course, any savings at the pump have to be weighed against the premium you’ll
typically pay when renting a hybrid. Last December, when I began researching a
week-long January rental in the Bay area, the major rental companies were
charging a base rate of $495–$500 for a hybrid, approximately $110 more than the
compact models I’d normally rent.

Lower emissions and other pluses aside, recouping the added cost is a moving
target. At $2 per gallon, you’d have to drive a Prius around 3,400 miles to
break even on fuel costs when compared to, say, a Nissan Versa (27 combined mpg)
or Ford Focus (28 mpg). At $4 per gallon, the break-even point drops to 1,700
miles. Clearly, the farther you drive — or the higher the price of gas — the
more you save.

You can lower your costs in other ways, as well, especially as more businesses
expand their own green initiatives. For example, at least 10 Fairmont hotels
offer free parking for guests arriving in hybrid vehicles. Show up in a Prius or
hybrid Ford Escape and you can save $23 per day at the Fairmont Scottsdale, $42
per day at the Fairmont Copley Plaza (Boston) and $50 per day at the Fairmont
San Francisco.

And speaking of San Francisco, earlier this month, San Francisco International
Airport announced a Green Rental Car program, which rewards visitors with a
similarly environmental mindset. Hoping to eliminate more than 4,000 tons of CO2
emissions per year, the airport is offering a $15 discount at the counter for
visitors who rent hybrids that achieve an EPA rating of 18 or higher.
More cars, new programs and a bright future

Such efforts will likely be echoed elsewhere as more organizations seek to
reduce their carbon emissions and hybrid rentals become more available.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, is currently taking delivery of 5,000 new
hybrids. That more than doubles its fleet and brings the company-wide total
(including sister companies Alamo and National) to 9,000 vehicles.

Enterprise is also in the process of unveiling what it calls “hybrid branches”
where renters can now reserve hybrids in advance. (Previously, would-be renters
had to make a general reservation, then call the specific branch to inquire
about hybrid availability.) “We realized the demand was there,” says Lee
Broughton, director of corporate sustainability. “We wanted to make the process
a bit more straightforward.”

To that end, the company solicited feedback from employees to determine where
hybrid interest was highest. Among the findings: markets with a lot of
commuters, eco-conscious leisure travelers and businesses seeking to manage
their emissions in the face of regulatory issues or stakeholder interest. The
service is now being rolled out in 80 locations in 22 markets across the U.S.
Meanwhile, the hybrid-for-hire market continues to evolve as increased interest
and greater availability allow new players to develop new niches. From luxury
hybrid rentals in Los Angeles (eQocar) to hybrid taxis in Arlington, Va., going
green is getting easier all the time.

And the evolution will continue, says Broughton: “Hybrids are going to become
part of the solution that helps us get our heads around alternative
technologies,” he says, “and they’ll help make the passenger vehicle remain as
viable as it’s been for the last 50 years.”

 

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