Inside the Green Fleet Decision Process
With a directive to go green, numerous fleet applications and so many alternative-fuel and power options, what’s a fleet manager to do? Work the grants system, fit the vehicle to the task and calculate a favorable ROI.
Jason Ebert, GO Riteway’s fleet and facilities coordinator, stands next to the company’s new propane refueling station, which was funded entirely through a Clean Cities grant.
To say that GO Riteway has a varied fleet is an understatement. The ground transportation company runs school buses, motor coaches, shuttle coaches, limo coaches, limousines, executive sedans and vans out of nine locations to serve business travelers, tourists, students and local residents.
So in deciding to “go green,” choosing just one form of alternative power or fuel wasn’t necessarily right for the entire fleet. For Jason Ebert, fleet and facilities coordinator, the process took a hands-on vetting of vehicle choices based on job types, routes, operational concerns and return on investments.
The path to a greener fleet started with the company’s strict no-idle policy for all fleet vehicles, from school buses to shuttle buses to executive sedans. “With that in mind, it just made sense to look at other ways to be green,” Ebert says. This mindset was compounded by the fact that southern Wisconsin has one of the worst air pollution problems in the nation. “We’re doing our part to cut down on the air quality problem we have in the Milwaukee area,” he says.
The diverse GO Riteway fleet and its varied routes and applications are a good testing ground for different alternative-fuel and alternative-power vehicles.
The Hybrid Calculation
In September 2010, the company acquired two hybrid mini coaches for use at the Kohl’s department store corporate campus. The 21-passenger shuttle buses sit on General Motors’ 4500 chassis with 6.0L gas engines and have a hybrid system made by Variable Torque Motors in conjunction with Cummins Crosspoint.
GO Riteway bought the mini coaches slightly used from a company that originally purchased them through a Wisconsin Clean Cities grant. Because they were used, however, GO Riteway could not take advantage of any grant opportunities, and on top of that the vans only had 12,000 miles on them, so there was not much of a pricing advantage compared to buying new. The added hybrid technology doubled the cost of the vehicles. The fuel economy “is not as much as we expected, but there is improvement,” Ebert says, adding that “we’re probably not going to see a return on investment on the hybrid units.”
But the vehicles still make sense in light of GO Riteway’s overall environmental vision, as well as Kohl’s. “Kohl’s is looking for partners in green technology from their suppliers,” Ebert says, adding that the company specifically requested some type of hybrid technology in its corporate shuttle buses, which are marked as hybrids with “Kohl’s Cares” logos.
Ebert expects a lifespan of five to seven years on the mini coaches, or 100,000 to 150,000 miles. Ebert says the lifespans of the lighter van chassis are hindered by weather-related issues in Wisconsin such as road salt body damage.
The Grant Equation
GO Riteway also purchased four new Thomas Built school buses with Eaton Corp. hybrid systems and Freightliner Custom Chassis. The company paid $85,000 each for the buses and $75,000 for each hybrid unit. This time, however, the company got a Wisconsin Clean Cities grant — which covered the entire cost of the hybrid conversions.
Ebert says the grants process is not prohibitive, as long as fleets follow Clean Cities’ guidelines, checklists and documentation requirements. The wait for funds is usually 30 to 60 days after submitting the application. After acquiring the vehicles, the fleet is required to report on its mileage, fuel economy and operational aspects on a regular basis.
“We’re seeing a 10% to 20% increase in fuel economy on those buses,” with savings varying greatly by route and driver, Ebert says. He adds that he has seen an even greater increase in drivers who “make a game of it” by driving in a way that keeps the electric motor on as long as possible before the diesel engine kicks in.
In terms of driver acceptance, Ebert says drivers like how the hybrid school buses ride and they like the air brakes, though some have mentioned that the brakes are a little slower from a dead stop than conventional diesel models.
GO Riteway is expecting 12 more Thomas Built hybrid school buses to be delivered in April, along with two International school buses with Eaton hybrid systems that will come in the summer.
Ebert says he has investigated the new all-electric school bus — the Newton e-trans just coming out on the market — though with its non-standard configuration he has concerns about whether it meets Wisconsin’s state statutes for school bus regulations.