Limousines Stretching Toward Greener Times

By Warren Brown
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Robert Mackasek, chief executive officer of Valera Global, had a green headache. The condition stemmed from the public's expressed desire to reduce tailpipe pollution coupled with its unwillingness to give up much in terms of comfort or convenience to help shrink the carbon footprint of automobiles.

For Mackasek's New York-based company, which operates the 14th-largest chauffeured vehicle fleet in the nation, the condition was acute. Valera's lineup of 215 limousines and sport-utility vehicles, including models such as the long-wheelbase Lincoln Town Car, the Mercedes-Benz S-550 sedan and the GMC Yukon Denali, were decidedly non-green in a world where green was becoming hip -- even among Valera's well-heeled clientele.

"We had a general concern about our fleet because some rival services were beginning to buy Toyota Prius models," Mackasek said about the little gas-electric hybrid car, popularly hailed as the automotive definition of "green."

Mackasek considered moving Valera in the same direction. But he then discovered that the Prius-green movement of his rivals wasn't all it seemed to be.

"They would have a few Prius models on display at their stands at conventions" of livery service providers, Mackasek said of his competitors. "But it was mostly for show . . . sort of like what happens in Hollywood when celebrities are going to an event."

The stars "are chauffeured in their limousines, or they drive their luxury cars and Hummers to a certain drop-off point. Then they get out of those vehicles and into Prius cars" and arrive at the red carpet looking green, Mackasek said.

But maintaining a fleet of showoff Prius cars or other hybrids is an expensive ruse in a business where most clients still demand all of the amenities of luxury limo service -- plush comfort, rear-cabin work desks and entertainment systems, and liquor bars to help reduce the stress of travel for the mobile elite.

Valera scoured the globe for plush, green rides. "But there wasn't really much available in terms of what our clients wanted to use," Mackasek said.

Also, there was Valera's accounting department. To put it simply, going gas-electric did not add up for the company's bean counters.

"We'd have the extra purchase cost involved in buying hybrids. How could we justify that extra cost in vehicles that would go mostly unused?" Mackasek asked.

Valera also was uncertain about the pace of development in hybrid technology. Would today's gas-electric have the market appeal and, thus, the relative resale value of yesterday's laptop? And what about maintenance costs? Valera, a privately held company, estimated that it would cost $7,000 each to replace the nickel-metal hydride battery packs used in current-generation gas-electrics. The company's bottom line: Going bust in an attempt to go green was not an option.

"But we still wanted to make a statement," Mackasek said. "Our clients also wanted to make a statement in support of green initiatives."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company