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Ambulance with the Hybrid Idle Reduction System. (FleetChallenge Ontario)
Ambulance with the Hybrid Idle Reduction System. (FleetChallenge Ontario)

The Green Highway

The high cost of an idling vehicle Add to ...

Here are some scenes with which you are familiar. A truck from the telephone or cable company is parked under a pole with the engine idling hour after hour as the crew does whatever. Or a traffic accident with numerous police cars and ambulances parked on the road, all with engines idling sometimes for hours. Or my favourite: two cop cars tucked out of view behind a building, left window to left window, chatting the time away with two large-displacement V-8 engines rumbling quietly.

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A reliable study shows that an astonishing 85 per cent of the total engine time of urban police cars is spent idling. Just sitting there with the engine running, whether you're eating a doughnut or not, burns about 5 litres of gasoline an hour and, province-wide, releases tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon. That's why a non-profit group called FleetChallenge Ontario came up with something called Hybrid Idle Reduction System.

You can't blame the cops, or the cable guy or the ambulance drivers, for having the engine on. They need the heat in the winter and the air conditioning in the summer and they always need electricity for their lights and radios and tools. The vehicles are their offices and workshops, but, on the other hand, runaway fuel costs are a huge operating expense for these vehicle fleets - to say nothing of the resulting greenhouse gases.

Roger Smith, head of FleetChallenge Ontario.

Run by former fleet manager Roger Smith, the FleetChallenge folks have put a number of Ontario-made technologies into a handful of police cars.

First of all, the system shuts off the engine automatically after a preset amount of time - usually about three minutes. Then if the car gets cold, a tiny gas heater comes on. This heater is like the ones transport trucks use to heat the sleeping compartment or sailors use to keep their boat warm. This is off-the-shelf equipment that uses fuel by the thimbleful.

If it's hot, a little battery-driven air conditioner comes on. The juice for the AC and for all the lights and radios comes from a small bank of extra batteries stuffed in the trunk. The whole system is monitored by a little computer and, if necessary, it will start up the engine again. The engines get beefed-up alternators to keep things charged.

FleetChallenge isn't releasing the numbers until the whole experiment has been nailed down at the end of the year (Auto21 at the University of Windsor is providing a PhD student to help with that) but it has reported that its goal of a 40 per cent reduction in idling time is being achieved.

"We launched this idling reduction program a year ago and the interest from around the world has been incredible. We've had inquiries from everywhere," says Smith.

It's pretty easy to make the case for reducing idling. For starters, there are about 6,000 police cars in Ontario (nearly 4,000 in Toronto alone) plus 1,000 or so ambulances province-wide. Then add all the government and commercial fleets and you're into some pretty big numbers. In fact, Smith just returned from New York where he signed up FleetChallenge to deliver a program with the Environmental Defence Fund and the (Bill) Clinton Global Initiative and others to try to cut fleet emissions in Canada by 20 per cent in five years. The Ontario-grown HIRS (Hybrid Idling Reduction System) is one of the leading ways to hit the target.

Back to police cars for a moment because the three biggies in the fleet - the Ford Crown Vic, the Dodge Charger and the Chevy Impala are all built-in-Ontario vehicles. However, in the rotten automotive business environment of the last couple of years, not one of those manufacturers stepped up to assist in the research and development of HIRS. However on the ambulance side of things, two Canadian companies, Demers and Crestline, have both been deeply involved. In fact, both companies are now offering FleetChallenge's HIRS in their current ambulance lineup.

One last thing - how much will it cost to reduce the burning of fuel and the production of greenhouse gas with the additional HIRS equipment to reduce idling? Nothing.

Early numbers are showing the reduction in fuel costs alone easily covers the cost in the service life of the vehicle.

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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