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October 7, 2002

Think success for Shared Car program

By Michael Terrazas

By now, most people on campus have probably seen them scooting around—little gray-blue cars, looking like something made by Fisher-Price, barely big enough to hold the person driving—and thought, “What in the world is that?”

They are Ford Thinks, an electric, emission-free vehicle, and Emory has a fleet of seven. Together they form the core of the Shared Car Program, designed to provide participants in the University’s larger Alternative Transportation (AT) Program with the mobility of a personal automobile when they need it, and they have served their purpose quite well.

“We’re seeing a lot of people use the cars,” said AT Director Brian Shaw. “The main issue is that here are people who don’t drive to campus but may need a car occasionally, and here’s a way to give them one without bringing their own car, and in a way that’s environmentally friendly.”

Following a brief training course on driving the Think, and a motor vehicle record check, AT employee participants—carpoolers, vanpoolers, MARTA riders and registered walkers/ cyclists to campus—may check the cars out for up to half a day for personal or business reasons.

For now, the cars “live” in the Clairmont Campus Parking Deck, where the charging
stations are located. Drivers simply make their reservations through the AT office, pick up the keys at Clairmont, do their business and bring the cars back—mission accomplished, with zero damage to Atlanta’s already poor air quality.

Thinks are especially appropriate for in-town driving; the cars have a top speed of about 55 mph and can travel roughly 50 miles on a single charge. Though they look small on the outside, they are actually quite roomy inside for two passengers. Aside from its engine technology, the Think operates exactly like a normal car, and Emory’s vehicles are equipped with air conditioning and AM/FM stereos with CD players.

Since the program began in April, Shaw said the Thinks have seen steady use; statistics for the first three months indicate the seven cars logged 941 business miles and 707 personal miles. Roughly 1,600 people participate in AT programs, meaning that altogether the University has eliminated the need for some 1,300 parking spaces, not to mention keeping the same number of cars off Atlanta roads.

The Shared Car Program is just another way to make participation in AT programs more attractive; participants already reap economic benefits (saved fuel and maintenance costs and often reduced insurance premiums) as well as the positive feeling of having helped reduce air pollution. Now they enjoy an added measure of convenience, as well.

“We’re just trying to level the playing field because the single-occupant vehicle commute has so many advantages,” Shaw said, adding that AT participants do get 12 passes per year to drive their own cars to work. They also can get a free guaranteed ride home in case of an emergency up to five times per year. Think usage is limited to 600 miles per year per individual; any more mileage than that, Shaw said, and usage of the cars becomes a taxable benefit.

Shaw is working on an online vehicle management and reservation system that will completely automate the process; eligible drivers will be issued special key fobs to identify themselves. They will make their reservations online, present their fobs to be read at a kiosk and enter their personal identification code numbers to open the vehicle and start the engine. A Palm-type handheld computer will log in the miles driven and send the information via a limited AM radio frequency to the central computer.

Once this system is in place—its experimental implementation was a condition of the $100,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant that helps fund the Shared Car Program—Shaw said three or four of the Thinks will be relocated to Peavine Parking Deck for added convenience.

It seems like a win-win program all around, and it was—until Ford Motor Co. announced recently it was terminating its electric vehicle program. Ford, which in 1999 bought the European company that manufactures Thinks, decided electric cars were not the answer for alternative-fueled vehicles. The cars may continue to be produced in Europe, but without Ford, there will be no one to import them to the United States.

As it is, Emory’s cars are permitted by the federal Department of Transportation to ride on America’s roads until August 2004, when they must be returned to Europe. However, the cars will continue to be available to program participants until then.

For more information about the Shared Car or AT programs, call the Office of Alternative Transportation at 404-727-1829.