Unpredictable gas prices and a desire to go easy on the environment are sending business owners in search of vehicles using some of the latest fuel-saving — and money-saving — technologies.
Cornerstone Specialty Pharmacy on Zion Road in Fayetteville has made deliveries in a Toyota Prius for about a year and a half, office manager Amber Wright said. Bought used, it replaced a Chevy Tahoe, and the savings on gasoline has been significant, she said.
Fuel cost savings, environmental concerns and reliability factored into the decision to buy the Prius, she said. Plus her parents drive one and recommended it, she added.
“We’re really happy with it,” Wright said of the car that delivers medications to customers “all over.” With more than 40,000 miles on it, it’s needed only regular maintenance.
In fact, the pharmacy plans to buy a second one in the near future to keep up with growing business, Wright said — “maybe a newer one with GPS.”
Priuses are hybrid electric vehicles, or HEVs, which the Environmental Protection Agency describes as combining features of internal combustion engines and electric motors that use energy stored in batteries. Unlike all-electric vehicles, hybrids don’t need to be plugged into an external source of electricity to be recharged. Most run on gasoline, and the battery is charged by the internal combustion engine and regenerative braking.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities 2013 Vehicle Buyer’s Guide states, “The extra power provided by the electric motor allows for a smaller engine, resulting in better fuel economy without sacrificing performance.”
Some HEVs get 40 to 50 mpg, and generally emit lower levels of air pollutants and greenhouse gases than conventional vehicles, the buyer’s guide states.
According to the DOE’s Alternative Fuel Data Center, the Prius has been the top-selling HEV model since its introduction in 2000, even though the number of HEV models has since grown to more than 30.
Brad Audrain, a co-owner of the Green Cab Co. in Fayetteville, said they chose Priuses for the company because the vehicles are environmentally friendly and mean lower fuel costs for the drivers, who are responsible for filling the gas tanks.
“Not only do our hybrid vehicles leave a reduced carbon footprint, but the reduced gas expense for drivers creates a more efficient business model than traditional taxi companies,” Audrain said.
Green Cab opened for business on New Year’s Eve 2011 with four brand-new Priuses, which now have between 60,000 and 80,000 miles on them, Audrain said. Since then, they’ve added a fifth car, a larger model called the Prius v.
The company serves both Washington and Benton counties, with Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport a frequent destination. Green Cab recently opened a booth at the airport, and plans to buy a sixth Prius in the next month or so to meet demand there, and then add a seventh by the end of the year.
The cars, which average about 45 mpg, are working out well, Audrain said. He attributes the only downside to the relatively small number of Priuses on the road.
“Parts cost a little bit more, or oil changes cost a little more,” he said. “But I think if more people drove them, these would be changing.”
The regular Toyota Prius isn’t more expensive than buying something like a Honda Accord, Audrain said, “and the gas mileage works for anyone.”
“I don’t have any complaints,” he said. “They’ve been great for us. My next car will likely be a Prius.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the city of Fayetteville is testing both the hybrid and alternative-fuel waters.
Dennis Pratt, the transportation division’s fleet manager, said the city plans to replace its fleet of about 40 cars — not counting police cars — with hybrids. It’s currently operating two Ford Fusions and two Priuses, he said, and will evaluate which performs best.
And in a pilot project it started in December, seven lawn mowers and four pickups have been converted to run on propane. The city bought the conversion kits and did the work in-house, Pratt said.
The two Colorado pickups have been on the road for just a few weeks and have already recouped the cost of the kits, he said.
“We’re checking our return on investment and making sure it’s going to give us a return on investment, along with the cleaner emissions and an American-made fuel supply,” he said.
“We’ll come to a decision around October of this year, and will get the data together, make a presentation to the administration and see what they want to do.”
Some business owners are waiting to jump on the hybrid bandwagon, especially those with special requirements like florists. Their vehicles have to be tall enough to accommodate multiple large floral arrangements.
Jim Mowen, the owner of Flowerama in Bentonville, said his Ford Transit delivery vehicle is better than the van he used to have, saving about 30 percent on fuel costs. But he’s open to the idea of switching to a hybrid, provided it’s roomy enough, gets good mileage and is built to last. The business puts about 35,000 miles on its delivery vehicle each year, he said.
Even if the right model was a bit pricier than a nonhybrid, that wouldn’t faze him, he said.
“It’d definitely be one of those deals where you’d have to do the cost analysis,” Mowen said. “But if you have to pay more initially to save on monthly expenses, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”
Local pharmacy chain Collier Drug Stores uses a fleet of 12 Honda Civics for deliveries, which make up about 25 percent of its business, said Mel Collier, the family-owned company’s operations manager, vice president and treasurer. Each car racks up about 35,000 miles a year, he said, delivering “from Lincoln to Bella Vista, pretty much all over.”
“We’re looking to replace our fleet this year, and I’ve test-driven lots of different cars,” he said. “It’s not working for me. So we hope to keep our Civics running.”
He would switch to a hybrid or, preferably, an electric vehicle “if they could build something that meets my needs,” Collier said. “There’s nothing out there that’s affordable and can do what I need them to do.”
The right vehicle for the pharmacy chain would be in the $15,000 range, he said, have two doors and a hatchback, get good gas mileage — and come in red, “for the Razorbacks.” It also has to be big enough to hold wheelchairs and other medical equipment and allow drivers to load and unload it easily.
The company owns two Smart cars, which Collier said are usually parked in front of its flagship pharmacy on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. They’re great attention-getters, he said, but too small for the equipment they need to carry. Also, they get about the same gas mileage as the Civics.
Collier said they had some Honda Insights around 2001, but found they didn’t hold up well.
“Things were falling off,” he said. “They build them light, which means they’re not very durable.”
The Energy Department’s Vehicle Buyer’s Guide lists 35 HEV models with a chart showing data like engine size, miles per gallon for city and highway driving, and the starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
Options range from the Honda Insight, with the lowest MSRP of $18,500, to the Lexus LS 600h L, priced at $119,910. Most are in the $20,000 to $40,000 range.
Prius has three models. The Prius c gets about 50 mpg, and has an MSRP of $18,950. The regular Prius also averages 50 mpg, with an MSRP of $23,215. The Prius v averages about 42 mpg, and is priced at $26,650.
Recognizing that a vehicle’s purchase price is only part of its true cost, the AFDC has an online Vehicle Cost Calculator. The tool lets consumers determine the total lifetime ownership costs of a vehicle, including fuel and maintenance, and compare all models on the market.
The calculator also lets users evaluate a vehicle’s emissions benefits, comparing models that use conventional fuel, alternative fuels and electricity.