Hybrid cars’ popularity at U boosts numbers in the fleet

by Aidan M. Anderson

With 2005’s hybrid vehicle sales nearly 2 1/2 times that of 2004, the cars seem to have ascended from a novelty to a “must have.”

And University Fleet Services is in line to acquire more because the cars have found a following with faculty members and staff members.

The University has 10 Toyota Prius hybrid sedans and two Ford Escape hybrid SUVs in its fleet. It expects to take delivery on another Escape next week, said Bill Roberts, director of University Fleet Services.

“The cars have been quite well received. I think the crowd here is pretty green and they like that,” he said.

University drivers request the hybrid vehicles more frequently than the regular gas cars because people enjoy driving vehicles with better fuel efficiency, Roberts said.

However, the hybrid option doesn’t work for all applications. For example, several manufacturers have offered small pickup trucks in hybrid models, but the University’s demands require traditional payload and horsepower of a 3/4-ton or 1-ton truck, which hybrid vehicles have yet to match.

The hybrids cost more than their gas-only counterparts, but University administrators are accepting of fleet services’ efforts to test the vehicles.

“Thankfully we’re not tied to low-cost purchase contracts, so we haven’t had a problem,” Roberts said.

Also, University-owned vehicles typically go to auction with much of their drivable life ahead of them.

Last year the University sold two Prius sedans at an auction for about 95 percent of their purchase price of $19,365, in part because of high demand and limited availability at dealerships.

“I think it’s going to stay that way for a while,” Roberts said. “Right now, I’d have to say the life-cycle cost is better than other vehicles.”

The University is not partial to any single manufacturer, but hasn’t had a chance to evaluate some vehicles like Honda’s Civic hybrid.

“We haven’t been able to get our hands on one of those for even an hour,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”

The Energy Policy Act of 1992, which required certain government fleets to seek alternative fuel vehicles, such as those that burn natural gas or E85, helped push the University’s fleet in the hybrid direction.

“Hybrids came and I thought Let’s try these; we knew they’d cost more, but we also knew they’d get better mileage,” Roberts said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has one hybrid, also a Prius, which has been popular as well.

“We have people that compete to get a hold of it,” University of Wisconsin fleet program manager Jim Bogan said.

Although Bogan would like to acquire more hybrid vehicles, the high cost and limited view of up-front spending deters budget approval, he said.

“Our general approach is, we like the idea and we’d be doing more of it if it didn’t have the bureaucratic oversight,” he said. “It’s an attractive option.”

Toyota has stopped selling the Prius to government organizations to first satisfy the consumer demand, Toyota spokesman John McCandless said.

Toyota projects consumer waitlists around two months long in most markets, McCandless said.

“We’re hoping to open sales to governments and universities within a couple months,” he said.

Toyota sold 110,000 of the sedans in 2005.