WASHINGTON – Wanted: Cars and trucks that plug into electrical outlets instead of filling up at gas stations.
The General Services Administration, which oversees a fleet of more than 650,000 federal vehicles, has for the first time asked auto companies to bid on supplying about 100 electric cars for the government to purchase. The request was part of an Obama administration plan outlined earlier this year to increase the number of green vehicles used by federal workers on the job.
While symbolic to a certain degree, government fleet operators said it will allow them to examine how federal agencies could best use the vehicles for jobs like shuttling passengers, moving equipment and maintaining buildings. The bulk buying is happening as automakers release mass-produced plug-in electric hybrid vehicles and electric cars later this year.
"The new technology lends itself to the multiple functions that the government does in its day-to-day business," said Bill Toth, director of the GSA's Office of Motor Vehicle Management. The government is expected to spend about $4 million on the vehicles.
Gas-electric hybrids and electrics only make up a small sliver of the cars and trucks owned or leased by the federal government — less than 2 percent. More than 11,000 vehicles are hybrids, including about 5,600 bought earlier this year. Through the fall of 2009, the government had 57 electric vehicles, with more than half deployed to the U.S. Postal Service.
Automakers are submitting bids this month and the GSA expects to award contracts by the end of the year. New electric vehicles could begin appearing in the fleets by next April or May, Toth said.
Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, said adding the electric cars to government fleets would give manufacturers and suppliers more certainty as they increase their volume of vehicles and attempt to lower production costs.
And the variety of electric cars — including vehicles running only on batteries or "range extenders" that shift into hybrid mode when the battery is depleted — could be used for different purposes in a fleet.
"Fleet operators live and die by cost per mile so I think there will be a real motivation about this technology," Wynne said.
Several automakers hope to sell vehicles through the program. General Motors Co., which is releasing its Volt rechargeable electric car, is "taking a careful look at the GSA proposal," said spokesman Greg Martin. Ford Motor Co., which is releasing an electric Transit Connect van this year, also plans to be in the bidding process, said spokesman Mike Moran.
Smaller manufacturers are also expected to apply. Wheego Electric Cars Inc., based in Atlanta, plans to submit a bid for its LiFe electric 2-door coupe, said spokeswoman Susan Nicholson. The vehicle recharges in about five hours and travels about 100 miles on a single charge.
Nissan Motor Co., which is releasing the Leaf electric car this year, does not intend to bid, said company spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan. Nissan has had more than 20,000 reservations from potential customers putting down $99 to own a Leaf. "Right now we have such strong consumer demand we are focusing on that area of the business," Ginivan said.