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O.C. Commuters Share Electric Cars

Transportation: Pilot program lets train riders use the vehicles to get to and from Irvine station.

April 19, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An experimental program that lets rail commuters use a motor pool of electric cars at the Irvine train station was unveiled Thursday by a consortium involving UC Irvine, local government and private industry.

The pilot project, the largest of its kind in the country, allows employees of participating corporations to share 50 low-emission vehicles for trips to and from the Irvine Transportation Center and for errands during the workday.

Under the shared-use concept, a commuter from Riverside who works for a company in Irvine can arrive at the transportation center in the morning, pick out a car and drive to work. While the worker is on the job, the vehicle can be used to run errands.

At the end of the day, the employee drives back to the train station, leaving the car for other participants--perhaps later-arriving commuters returning from Los Angeles who will use the vehicle to get home.

In the morning, those commuters will return the car to the transportation center to keep the cycle going.

Motorists can recharge the electric vehicles at the train station by drawing power from solar panels and fuel cells.

"This is a new transportation strategy. It is not a substitute for freeway commuting. It is an alternative to freeway commuting," said G. Scott Samuelsen, director of UCI's National Fuel Cell Research Center, which will manage the program.

Dubbed Zev-Net for its use of zero-emission vehicles, the public-private partnership has leased about a third of its vehicles to three companies in the Irvine Spectrum area--Orthodyne Electronics, CTG Energetics and Quantum.

The rest are expected to be leased in the coming weeks.

If the program runs smoothly, there are plans to expand the fleet to almost 200 vehicles placed at half a dozen train stations in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Zev-Net participants get a choice of three Toyota vehicles--an electric RAV, a small sport-utility vehicle; a Prius sedan that combines a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor; and the egg-shaped E-Com, an urban runabout with two seats.

Businesses can lease two of the cars for $5,000 a year or four vehicles for $10,000 a year. Because of the relatively high cost, the program so far is being offered only to employers, not individuals.

"While the automobile has provided freedom and mobility, it also has taken a heavy toll--congestion, pollution and oil dependency," said J. Davis Illingsworth, a senior vice president at Toyota Motor Sales USA. "We need to take action. This is part of the solution."

The Irvine Transportation Center was selected as home base for the pilot program because of its location in the Irvine Spectrum business district.

All Zev-Net cars will be equipped with electronic tracking devices to monitor their use, and diagnostic sensors to alert a UCI control center of any breakdowns or mechanical problems.

"Using public transportation has been viewed as punishment," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, whose city is participating in the venture. "This should make commuting safe and enjoyable."

Shared-use programs with zero- or low-emission vehicles have been started in other parts of the country, such as Flex-Car in Seattle and Zip-Car in Boston. Atlanta is planning the Motion and Mobility project.

In California, automakers participating in programs like Zev-Net can earn credits toward fulfilling state requirements that, eventually, 10% of all cars sold in California be zero-emission vehicles.

Samuelsen said the demonstration project will last at least three years and provide a good opportunity for researchers to address transportation problems through computer technology, the latest electric vehicles and the shared-use concept.

Zev-Net involves Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., the city of Irvine, the Irvine Co., the Orange County Transportation Authority and the California Air Resources Board. Among the partners from UCI is the Institute of Transportation Studies.

"This program will demonstrate how we can use technology to clean our air, help cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our dependency on petroleum products all at the same time," said Alan C. Lloyd, chairman of the California Air Resources Board.

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