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Take a drive into the future

Janet Urquhart

Randy Udall, local promoter of all things efficient, has lately taken on the role of car salesman.

The director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency is pitching the Toyota Prius as the fleet car of the future for Aspen and Pitkin County.

“Both the city and the county fleet guys have looked at it, driven it, put it through its paces,” said Udall.

The new hybrid car, powered by both an electric motor and a gasoline engine, may also be the perfect choice for a car-sharing program, said Udall. Aspen is exploring the car-sharing concept in conjunction with affordable housing projects, where numerous residents could share the use of several vehicles.

“One of these would be perfect for that kind of application, because it gets such great mileage,” Udall said.

Udall, whose name often pops up in connection with local initiatives to make buildings more efficient and environmentally friendly to heat or supply with electricity, is unabashedly enthusiastic about the technology that has gone into the Prius.

“CORE is psyched that hybrid electrics are here. It’s not a year too soon,” said Udall.

Ten years from now, he predicts, the drive-train of the Prius will be standard in new cars of all makes.

“What’s exciting to me is these same ideas could be incorporated into an SUV – a jeep, a van, a bus, for that matter,” he said.

Currently, though, only Toyota and Honda, which produces the small, two-seat Insight, have a hybrid gas-electric car in mass production. There are more than 30,000 of the four-door, sedan-style Priuses on the road in Japan and Asia already, according to Udall.

Presently, Toyota loses about $10,000 on every Prius it sells, according to sales executive Ed Rosenberg at Bighorn Toyota in Glenwood Springs.

But the company is betting on the technology as the wave of the future, and Rosenberg, like Udall, thinks Toyota is on to something big.

The basic design of the internal combustion engine hasn’t changed significantly since the Model T, noted Rosenberg. Sure, fuel injection and catalytic converters have been added, but the engine itself functions pretty much like it did when Henry Ford first put the automobile into mass production.

The drive train of the Prius, contends Rosenberg, is a huge advancement.

“This is really a cornerstone in the auto world,” he said. “I think this is just the way it has to go. Our environment dictates it. Our use of natural resources dictates it. The technology is upon us.”

The Prius, priced at $20,000, uses both its gas engine and electric motor in concert, with no input from the driver. When the demand for power is low – when the car is idling or traveling at a slow speed – the electric motor provides the power. At higher speeds, the engine kicks in, running the generator that powers the motor that drives the wheels, and supplementing the power to the drive-train as well.

The system features something Toyota calls “regenerative braking” – the act of braking helps recharge the battery system that runs the electric motor. In addition, the gas engine runs the generator needed to recharge the battery pack, so the car never needs to be plugged in for recharging, like an all-electric vehicle does.

The gas pedal isn’t really a gas pedal at all – the car’s computer decides which source of power to tap. When the car is idling, it is silent because the engine disengages.

“We’re not heating the planet while we’re idling, which is basically what is happening all over America,” said Udall, showing off the car during a test drive. “In a typical car, the engine is on all the time, whether it’s coasting or stopped. The engine is on whether you need it or not.”

Udall punched his hand-held calculator and, using the data supplied by the Prius’ in-dash display panel, compared the efficiency of a drive from Glenwood to Aspen in the Prius vs. an SUV.

The Prius used about a gallon of gasoline and put 21 pounds of carbon dioxide – the leading “greenhouse gas” – into the air. An SUV getting 18 miles per gallon would have used 2.4 gallons of gas and put 51 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, according to Udall. The drive in the Prius cost $2.45 less in gasoline, assuming a gas price of $1.75 per gallon, he said.

The Prius gets about 44 miles per gallon driving upvalley. Headed downvalley, when the car maximizes the efficiency of traveling downhill, it gets more than 60 miles per gallon, said CORE administrative coordinator Joani Matranga.

“This is actually the first car that gets better mileage in the city than on the highway, which is good because most people’s driving is short trips around town,” Udall said.

The Prius is also the first vehicle to earn the federal government’s “super low emissions vehicle” rating, added Rosenberg. It’s the cleanest emissions rating there is, he said.

Holy Cross Energy has purchased one the of the cars, said Rosenberg, and the Prius is attracting interest from individual car buyers.

After a review of the Prius was published in the Glenwood Independent last week, Rosenberg sold two of the cars within 24 hours. The buyers can expect delivery early next year, he said.

“For something that nobody knows about, we’re getting a lot of calls,” Rosenberg said.


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