The logos on the patrol fleet attract attention from residents, along with positive comments on the energy efficiency of the hybrid autos.
With gasoline prices on the West Coast fluctuating significantly and unpredictably, Rancho Santa Fe Protective Services, Encinitas, Calif., carefully considered its options for replacing its patrol vehicles.

“We looked at hybrids because of their fuel efficiency,” explains Denise Mueller, CEO of Rancho Santa Fe. “Gas prices here in California are completely unpredictable and sometimes seem to be at somebody’s whim.”

The company had been using Ford Crown Victorias in its patrol fleet but was wondering whether smaller cars that get better gas mileage would offset higher gasoline prices. The costs of purchasing and fueling small, inexpensive vehicles for patrol were examined.

Even though sedans that use gasoline and electric hybrid technology had higher purchase prices than gasoline-only compact cars, the hybrids’ greater gasoline efficiency yielded savings that justified their higher price.

“We didn’t automatically go to hybrids,” Mueller reveals. “We really had to do the financial homework to get ourselves into the hybrids.

“Of the 510,000 miles driven by our patrol fleet last year, 266,500 were driven by our hybrids,” she reports. “Given the following facts, that gas prices are at $2.30 per gallon, and the fact that our hybrids get an average of 33 miles per gallon, the cost per mile on gas is approximately $0.06 per mile.

“Now take the 11 mpg of the larger Crown Victoria sedan, and that costs $0.20 per mile for gas,” she continues. “That is a net difference of $0.14 per mile savings for each hybrid mile driven last year. At 266,500 miles, that is an approximate savings of $37,310 over the year, or $3,109 per month of gas savings! We picked up two more Honda hybrids at the end of 2004.”

The dealership is using seven Honda Civic hybrids in its patrol fleet in 2005, in addition to Ford Crown Victorias, Tauruses and Lincoln Grand Marquises. It first purchased three hybrids in March 2003 and added two more at the end of that year.

(From left) Jake Trevino custody transport officer, Tonya Dawkins, security officer, and Tim Sjobring, operations captain, inspect one of the gasoline-electric hybrid autos in the patrol fleet of Rancho Santa Fe Protective Services, Encinitas, Calif.

No Plug-in Necessary

Hybrid autos run on a small gasoline engine and an electric engine. Electricity from a supplemental battery drives the electric motor, which provides extra power to the gasoline motor for acceleration.

The supplemental battery is recharged automatically when the vehicle is driven and when the brakes are applied. Hybrid vehicles never have to be recharged when idle. The two motors operate together seamlessly without any driver intervention.

Besides gasoline savings, another advantage to the hybrids that Mueller cites is the federal tax credit of $2,000 per vehicle her company has been able to collect. Another hybrid sedan Rancho Santa Fe considered is the Prius from Toyota, but the waiting list to obtain these vehicles is long.

“We did explore Ford, which has a hybrid Escape SUV coming out,” she notes. “It’s pretty expensive, $25,000 – another $5,000 above the price of Honda hybrids – and the cost and miles per gallon aren’t quite up there because the Escape is larger. But Ford’s been very good for us on the warranty end.”

The activity of the integrated motor assist (IMA) system is indicated by the gauge to the right of the steering wheel. The amount the supplemental battery is charged is indicated on the right side of the gauge.

Warranty Worries

That is the only area in which Mueller has had problems with Honda. “Honda was our first move from a non-American brand,” she relates. “We’ve always used American vehicles.”

So the warranty problems were a disappointment. A warranty inspector from Honda ruled that because the hybrids were being used for commercial purposes, the extended warranties Rancho Santa Fe bought for them should not have been issued.

The cost of the warranties was refunded, but after additional inquiries, Honda has committed to further coverage of the transmission repairs and a sensor on the supplemental restraint and airbag system that requires replacement after two false alarms, Mueller reports. “They have promised to work with us without putting it into writing,” she relates.

The highest mileage at press time on one of Rancho Santa Fe’s Civic hybrids was 118,000 miles. None of the hybrids’ supplemental battery packs have had to be replaced yet, Mueller reveals, but most of the hybrids have had their transmissions fixed between 80,000 and 100,000 miles.

That also is true of the other autos in their patrol fleet. Mueller thinks it relates more to the 24-hour usage the cars receive and their never having the chance to cool down rather than a mechanical deficiency.

“It seems to be a magical point on any vehicles we use for patrol – the transmission goes out at 80,000 miles,” she laments. “We always purchase extended warranties because we know we’re going to get a transmission.”

Slower acceleration from a stop with the hybrids than a Crown Victoria has not been an issue because the patrol division does not engage in pursuit, Mueller points out.

“Ground clearance is not quite as good with the hybrids, and our patrol officers didn’t like that,” she admits. But they have worked around that problem, she explains, because the lower ground clearance makes the hybrids more aerodynamic and hence more fuel-efficient.

“The cars are great,” Mueller declares. “I actually drove one fully outfitted as a patrol car. I love driving it – they’re very cute.

“Now that we have seven hybrids in our fleet, our patrol fleet is 50 percent hybrids,” she points out. “As our other vehicles wear out, they will be replaced with either the Honda hybrids or another type of hybrid vehicle that we choose in the future.”

The hybrids also have public relations value. “A lot of people make a comment,” Mueller observes. “It’s very surprising how many people do notice that we drive hybrids. They say, ‘You’re the company that drives those little hybrids.’ People are noticing.”