Natural Gas-Powered Limos Are Hollywood Hit

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
April 19, 2004
The newest addition to the limousine fleet of Los Angeles-based Evo Limo
is a tricked-out Chevy Suburban monster ride that gets about 15 miles
(24 kilometers) a gallon in gas mileage.

Your basic environmental nightmare, right?

Think again. This beast doesn't guzzle gasoline. Like the company's two other SUV limousines, it runs on natural gas, emitting 80 percent less smog-forming emissions than its gasoline-powered counterparts.

No wonder the swanky sport utility vehicles are a hit with the rich and eco-friendly Hollywood set. Cameron Diaz is a client. So is Woody Harrelson.

"There's no reason why people should have to choose between going green and going in luxury," said David Young, who founded Environmental Vehicle Outfitters (EVO) together with his partner, Seth Seaberg.

EVO is the first—and, its founders claim, only—environmentally friendly luxury car service in the United States.

Now it's expanding into its next, and potentially much bigger, business: converting SUVs into natural gas-powered vehicles. It's all part of an effort to tap into the alternative-fuels movement.

"It's not just about being an environmentalist," Seaberg said in an interview at the company's offices near Los Angeles International Airport. "It's about seeing the market economy's biggest shift ever. The oil will run out, and someone has to be there when it happens."

Hollywood Celebrities

When Young, a former music-industry talent manager, and Seth Seaberg, who worked in magazine publishing, started EVO a year ago, they knew which customers they had to attract: rich Hollywood celebrities with an environmental bent.

"These are people who are trendsetters," Seaberg said.

Hollywood's eagerness to show its eco-friendly side was on display at this year's Academy Awards, where the hybrid cars delivering the stars to the show at times seemed to outnumber the stretch limousines.

To ensure they're not mistaken for gas guzzlers, EVO's SUVs carry labels that say "Powered by clean natural gas." Underneath the auto, the regular gas tank has been replaced with up to four separate tanks to hold the natural gas.

Inside, the dark-tinted Suburbans are custom-fitted with facing black-leather seats for a six-passenger capacity. Each car has a flat-screen television that slides into place, DVD player, satellite radio, and PlayStation 2 video game console.

The bar is stocked with organic snacks, soy vodka from a company called Three, and water from a firm called Ethos, which sponsors clean-water projects in developing countries.

"It's the whole green package," Young said.

A ride in an EVO limo costs U.S. $75 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. The company, which has six drivers, said it logged 2,000 hours of service last year.

Cheaper Gas

The clients of the limousine service may also be the same customers who are likely to buy a converted SUV. Brad Pitt requested a proposal for a conversion after he rode in one of the EVO SUVs to an Academy Awards party.

Kevin Richardson, a member of the pop band Backstreet Boys, spent U.S. $10,000 to convert his 2004 GMC Yukon to run on compressed natural gas. EVO installed a fueling unit that taps into the same natural gas line that heats Richardson's Los Angeles home. He can now fill up his car—at 80 cents a gallon, compared to more than $2 at the regular pump—in his own driveway.

A natural gas vehicle has the same power and performance—and can carry the same weight—as an identical car fueled by gasoline.

"We're going after the same goal as the hybrid cars," Seaberg said. "That is to reduce foreign oil consumption and clean up the air."

According to the EVO founders, the future of the alternate-fuels industry is likely to be driven by small businesses, at least in the beginning.

Seaberg sees a future in which power supply, including that for cars, becomes localized. "We may see people sharing power on a mini-grid," he said.

Fuel of the Future

While natural gas technology has been around for several years, the emphasis of the auto industry has been on hydrogen as the fuel of the future.

The EVO founders agree that hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is probably where things are going. They say that natural gas can be an important stepping-stone on the way to a hydrogen-based system.

"Many people think having hydrogen in their car is like riding with a bomb," Seaberg said. "The storage and transportation of natural gas is similar to [that of] hydrogen. If people get comfortable with natural gas, it's not going to be such a big step to make the transition to hydrogen."

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