When the British rock band Queen recorded “I’m in Love with My Car”—its sensual, satirical paean to the muscle machines popular in the 1970s—it sure as Shinola wasn’t singing about the Toyota Prius.
Times have changed, and so has the feel most consumers have for their automobile. Pumpin’ pistons are out, energy efficiency and low emissions are in. So in January, Notre Dame took an experimental step toward an all-hybrid motor pool when it took delivery on a Toyota Prius after nine months on a waiting list.
“It’s not a bad small car,” says Marty Ogren, the manager of Notre Dame’s transportation services.
The car’s computer makes power decisions for you, switching back and forth between the electric motor and the gas-powered engine. Electricity covers most around-town driving, which accounts for much of a hybrid car’s high fuel efficiency, while the engine takes over on the highway, recharging the battery along the way.
The local fuel efficiency is one of the reasons the cars are especially attractive for use around a college campus. Longer hops are fine, too, Ogren says. A Domer could get on the highway to Chicago and even get lost in city traffic for an hour and count on 50 miles per gallon.
Ogren expects this will translate into fuel cost savings as high as $700 to $1,000 each year, possibly more if gas prices continue to climb.
“We’re using it to experiment and see where we can use this vehicle,” he says.
One result is already in. “It’s not strong enough for the demands that Security would put on their vehicles,” says Ogren. But Notre Dame’s 18-vehicle motor pool, available on a rental basis to anyone traveling on University business—and currently the domain of mid-size sedans and minivans—is a real possibility. Ogren already has several repeat customers for the Prius. “The wave of the future: Maybe we’ll have half a dozen Priuses three to four years from now,” he says.
Is the hybrid worth the higher up-front purchase price? Ogren sees the market changing quickly, perhaps as soon as the 2008 market year, bringing hybrids into line with other cars in their class. In the short run, he says, the environmental benefits cover the difference.
Meanwhile he’s keeping a close eye on other developments, such as UPS’s “Green Fleet” foray into hybrid delivery trucks. If more companies follow suit, the cost-benefit ratios could one day lead to hybrids of all kinds—cars and light trucks—in regular use across campus.
“The University is investigating all opportunities to conserve energy and reduce its ecological footprint,” says James Lyphout, Notre Dame’s vice president for business operations. “The use of more efficient cars is just one of a number of opportunities” to get this done.
For now, Notre Dame’s eco-magnanimity has reasonable limits. In March, Ogren’s staff test drove DaimlerChrysler’s GEM car, an electric vehicle that a local dealer dropped off in hopes of a sale. Ogren says it will take some years for the price to drop and the car to go far enough between battery recharges before it could be employed by University maintenance, parking services or food services.
Photo by Matt Cashore