Return of the Station Car
By Bill Moore
You live in Richmond, California but you work about 40 miles away in Fremont. The main concrete and asphalt artery connecting the two East Bay Area communities is Interstate 880. At the best of times the drive takes nearly an hour. At the worst, a lifetime!
YouÕd love to take the train, if only to escape the traffic and have a little extra time for yourself, but you need a car at the other end of the line to get to your workplace which is ten miles from the nearest BART station. So, every day you set out at least two hours early and sometimes three in hopes of beating the "rush" hour traffic that often creeps along at 12 mph or less. Frustratingly, the Richmond-Fremont BART service takes less than a hour and costs only $3.50, a bargain if one considers the wear on tear on both nerves and vehicle.
About a dozen daily BART commuters don't have to fantasize about having a car at the other end of the line. It's already here in the form of a reborn BART-station car program operated in partnership with Hertz, the giant car rental company. A major part of that program is the Th!nk city electric car. EVWorld talked with Andrea Church, Hertz's fleet manager for San Francisco about the BART program and the role of the Th!nk.
The PIVCO Prologue
The current program isn't the first time an electric car has been used as part of this promising new service concept.
Back in 1999, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority experimented with the station car concept, using a small fleet of 40 prototype electric cars built by PIVCO, a small Norwegian start-up. Their little two-seat car boasted some innovative technology, including a recyclable plastic body. For some eighteen months the program offered various packages to BART commuters which, in essence, let two people make use of the same vehicle. One person would take a car home at night, returning to the station the next day when they commuted by train to work. Another commuter, arriving later would take the same car and use it during the day to get to their workplace and to run errands. Because the car was small -- you could park three of them sideways in the space occupied by one minivan or pickup truck -- they took up less room in the station's parking lot, and being electric, they didn't pollute the local environment.
When the program ended in early 1999, the cars had to be shipped back to Norway where they were eventually demolished, but not before yielding valuable knowledge about the potential of station cars, as well as technical information about the cars themselves. PIVCO, which was struggling financially, had developed a successor to its original City Bee called the Th!nk. In late 1999, it brought the Th!nk back to San Francisco in hopes of drumming up venture capital and possibly even locating a manufacturing facility in the Bay Area. Those hopes where dashed when PIVCO's major investors pulled the plug the following month and the company was forced in bankruptcy.
It was only a month later that Ford Motor Company -- the parent of Hertz -- opened discussions about acquiring a controlling interest in PIVCO, conversations that ended in a formal acquisition of 51% of the company in early 2000. Ford announced it would resume production of the car in Norway and let Hertz handle the sales and leasing of the car in Europe. It also announced it would bring the car to the US in the 2001 to begin demonstration trials in an effort to identify promising market niches for the car, with sales to begin within two years after that.
The reborn BART Station Car program in Fremont, California is one of those demonstration programs. According to Ms. Church, BART approached Hertz about offering station car service at several stations using conventional gasoline powered vehicles, initially. It saw this as another way to lure frustrated drivers out of their stalled vehicles and onto BART trains. The original station car program had demonstrated that there was interest in such a service, even if there weren't any suitable electric vehicles available.
Church told EV World that Hertz decided to participate, starting with the Fremont, California station, which is currently the last station on BART's East Bay line. Until the Th!nk city vehicles became available, Hertz would use conventional gasoline cars. Even after a handful of Th!nks were placed into service recently, Hertz will continue to also offer its patrons use of conventional vehicles when they have to drive outside the practical range of the Th!nk which is about 50 miles at present. A lack of recharging infrastructure in the area hampers full utilization of the Th!nk for such relatively short drives as a trip to nearby San Jose, some 15 miles away. By the time a renter returns the car, it is nearly out of charge, not a reassuming event for the driver and or the car's batteries. Church said sheÕd like to work with more employers in and around Fremont to encourage them to install recharging stations. This would help extend the operating range of the cars since they could be recharged while the driver is attending to business.
In cases where the commuter knows they are going to drive a lot that day, they have the choice of taking one of the gasoline-powered vehicles for the day. However, Ms. Church said that everyone who drives the Th!nk comes back with a smile on their face, a hopeful sign that when used as it's intended the car performs at or beyond the customer's expectations.
Exploring a New Market
Hertz is using the Fremont program as a way to explore yet another market beyond its traditional airport and suburban rentals. "As we move toward a mobility system, we are able to test what services we can provide someone in a transit station and in the future in a bus or train station," Ms. Church explained. The service officially launched last May 8th in the station parking lot without any facilities, she also noted, with a more formal opening last Fall.
Having just a dozen monthly subscribers to the service isn't very many, but Church pointed out that there are both daily and weekly users. In the latter case, firms will send employees down for training in the Fremont area and arrange for them to have a car for during the week rather than the employee having to drive their own vehicle. The employee commutes back home at night by train.
Big Inside, Small Outside
While the Th!nk is a relatively small car on the outside (it measures just under 118 inches overall), Church said is has a very spacious feeling inside with a lot of storage space behind the two front seats. "It has a lot of pep and it moves very well up to its operating speed of about fifty-five miles an hour," she said.
She added that Hertz will advise potential renters not to use the Th!nk if they are going to drive over 45-50 miles. "We prefer they don't run out of fuel." The company also discourages drivers from taking it on the freeway since its top speed limitations will quickly become apparent. It is intended for inner urban travel only.
Currently the pilot program in Fremont operates under the rental car model with drivers having to fill out all the usual paperwork, though for monthly renters, this is done only at the outset of the rental with billing done once a month. "All you have to do is come in, show your identification every morning, take the car and come back and return it." The current monthly rate is $275 per user for the Th!nk and start at $300 a month for use of a gasoline vehicle.
Northern California's current energy debacle hasn't impacted the program yet, Church stated and she hoped that despite recent electricity increases, Hertz could keep the rentals of the Th!nk in the same price range as it is now. Currently the electricity for the vehicles is provide by BART which has not be subjected to blackouts. So, while the recent spate of rolling blackouts hasn't impacted the program, she did think it could become an issue at companies that voluntarily accepted potential electric service cuts in exchange for lower electric rates.
Who typically uses the electric car part of the program? Church said they have a couple of customers who use the Th!nk almost exclusively while others tend to shift between electric and gasoline as the need arises. The typical customer lives in Oakland and picks up the car in Fremont around six or seven in the morning. They usually return the car around 5:30 or 6 PM at night. They work in the Fremont area and don't take the cars very far. The number of men and women using the program is about equal.
Too Soon To Tell
While Hertz has the option to place the program in other BART stations, Church admitted it's too soon to tell whether the program makes sense financially. "If we are successful, we will probably move into other BART stations," she said, adding that Hertz would be interested in working with other cities and transit authorities to help them set up similar programs.
The Th!nk is also being rented to tourists on Fisherman's Wharf with some success, apparently. She said that tourists love it, both for its novelty and compact size in a part of the city where parking is at a premium. "It looks like a very good day use car," Church added. Expansion of the program depends on consumer interest, though personally from her perspective, Ms. Church told EV World she would like to see it grow. More information is available by calling toll free 877 559 7856 and on the Hertz web site.
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