Hybrid Car Inspires Cleaner, Greener Government

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In the wake of last year’s rollbacks for theallowable limit of arsenic in drinking water initiated by President Bush (whom Christie Todd Whitman, head of the EPA, called the “best environmental President we have ever had”), many ecologically-minded citizens are having difficulty trusting the government to support issues of environmental justice and responsibility. However, a recent decision by the Urbana City Council to add a hybrid vehicle to the City’s fleet is helping those who have been advocating a cleaner, healthier environment to breathe more easily.
In June of 2001, the Urbana City Council enthusiastically endorsed the purchase of an electric hybrid vehicle to conduct a review of its cost efficiency, feasibility, and application within the Cityís fleet. Since making the decision, Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Walden has been experimenting with the Toyota Prius, a gas/electric hybrid purported by its manufacturer to get gas mileage of 55mpg. At present, the 4-seat Toyota Prius and the 2-seat Honda Insight are the only gas/electric hybrids available, although as many as eight models will be available by 2004, according to the City of Urbana website (http://www.city.urbana.il.us).
When asked about the motives behind the decision, Mr. Walden stated that, with a fleet of 147 vehicles, the City of Urbana consumes approximately 100,000 gallons of fuel per year, a number that could be substantially reduced by the addition of a hybrid vehicle. In fact, the Prius is certified as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV), which means that it expels 75% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than even the Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV), such as the Honda Insight. According to Mr. Walden, however, the final decision to purchase the Prius was based on the increased functionality offered by its larger seating capacity.
City vehicles have a wide range of applications, with each department having specialized needs. Within the Cityís Parking Enforcement Division, for example, itís often necessary to leave a vehicle motionless for an extended period of time. With the Toyota Prius, the internal-combustion engine actually turns off while the car is idling or moving in reverse, thereby saving gas and battery power, as well as eliminating emissions. According to Walden, “The engine stopping at intersections is the most unusual, and sometimes disarming, characteristic of the vehicle for passengers. They are convinced the engine died.”
Eager to take people for a test drive in the hybrid, Walden says that it generally handles just like any small car, but gets far better gas mileage than cars containing standard combustion engines. “I got about 55mpg on a recent trip to Chicago and I had plenty of power for passing and cruising with traffic,” said Walden, noting that he made the trip with the air conditioning on, since the hybrid gets much better mileage when the AC is off. The dashboard features a small computer monitor that continuously displays which power system is operating and its fuel mileage. The vehicle utilizes the electric engine most often when traveling at speeds under 25mph.
The Toyota Prius comes with a 100,000 mile, seven-year warranty on the nickel-metal hydride battery, which is located under the rear seat. “I’m often asked ‘where do you plug it in?íî says Walden, who explains how the gas engine and regenerative brakes provide the charge for the battery.
Walden believes that the hybrids are well suited to meet many of the fleet needs of any municipality. “The vehicles achieve the best mileage when utilized for in-town driving on local streets. We will be assigning this vehicle to parking and nuisance enforcement this spring.” The experiments being conducted within the Parking Enforcement Division will help City officials determine other applications of the hybrid car within the fleet. Research is also underway on the potential of hybrid trucks containing internal electrical outlets, a feature with potential benefit for City departments that require the transportation and use of large, heavy equipment such as power tools, refrigeration units, or any other electrical devices.
If it is determined that the newly-purchased hybrid vehicle will be of practical benefit the City, Walden hopes that the support he is currently receiving from the City Council will lead to future purchases. To date, only 70,000 of these cars have been sold worldwide, with 17,000 being sold last year (the first year the hybrid became available in the United States). Nevertheless, Mr. Walden believes that the future of the automotive industry lies in hybrid vehicles. He foresees a price decrease as the cars become more readily available and popular among consumers seeking a viable alternative to the fossil-fuel engine.
The enthusiasm of Mr. Walden and the Urbana City Council is an inspiration for advocates of cleaner technology and industry. Such responsible decision-making emphasizes the importance of appealing to local leadership to base its policies on sustainability, and serves as an affirmation of grassroots environmental activism, which can be much more effective than national or international campaigns aimed at changing federal regulations.
The recent acquisition of a hybrid vehicle is also a small step in overcoming the outdated and destructive practices of corporations and special interest groups that influence governmental policies. Such small-scale, localized progress gives hope to those of us who understand the repercussions of short-sighted decisions, and who truly desire to leave behind something to be admired by future generations.

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