COAL: 1998 Honda Civic GX – I Was An Early Car-Sharing Study Guinea Pig

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When we moved from the San Francisco Peninsula to the East Bay my commute increased significantly.  While driving was always an option, there was also BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.  In early 1999, soon after we moved, I saw a flyer for a research study that would let me drive a car for almost a year in conjunction with using BART…

Alas, it was not totally free.  However, for $200 per month for the 10-month duration of the project (6-months initially, then extended) or until you opted out (which they strongly encouraged you not to do), I would have access to one of twelve 1998 Honda Civic GX’s (the natural gas powered ones) in a novel car-sharing program that was one of the first in the country.

HondaSponsors

Together with the UC Davis Institute of Transport Studies, Honda, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, BART and CarLink came up with a program to study how car-sharing could help commuters along with exposing some to clean-fuel vehicles, in fact, these were some of the earliest cars to be marketed directly to individual consumers as opposed to fleets.

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The basic concept was as follows: Twelve cars would be parked in a reserved prime parking area immediately next to the entrance to the Dublin BART Station (which was the station I passed when I headed to the freeway anyway and the station that by default I would use when riding BART).  At night, these cars would go home with users that lived in the area.  During the day, these cars would be used by employees of Lawrence Livermore Lab which was located 14 miles from the station to get to work.  There was no good, reliable alternative link from the station to the lab at the time.

HondaSmartBox

As a “Homeside Commuter” (I was one of eleven), I would pay $200 per month which would cover the car, fuel, all maintenance and all insurance.  For that I got a smartcard that opened a keybox and I could choose a set of keys and take one of the twelve (identical) cars home after returning from work via BART.  I could use it all evening and all night, it just had to be back in its stall by 8am the next business day when I would presumable be back on the train.  On Fridays I got to take the car all weekend (and on holidays as well).

HondaGasPort

“Workside Commuters”  (there were twenty) were Lawrence Livermore employees that would arrive via BART in the morning, take one of the cars such as the one I had dropped off (perhaps with a still-warm seat) with another worker as a carpool and then drive to work where they were refueled while the worker was, uh, working and cleaned if necessary.  At the end of the day they’d return to BART and be ready for me to come home and take one…Worksiders paid $60/month/pair or $30 each for their part of the project and were meant to carpool with at least one other worker each time.

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 I was interested in the car itself just because it was a bit different being natural gas powered and thought the whole concept sounded interesting.  How’d it work out?  Well, it was great.  I never had any issues, there was always a car parked there when I needed one, I would normally look at the cars that were there quickly to make sure they looked clean inside, swipe my card, open the keybox, grab the key for the car I wanted, close the box and get in the car.  The parking area was fantastic, as close if not closer than the disabled spots, the only way to have improved on that part was if there was valet service.  I can’t emphasize enough how much this mattered, the research study also noted this as a specific draw since the public parking at the station had not kept up with the area’s growth and often it was difficult to find a spot and get to the train on time.

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Starting the car was totally normal with the exception of a small input device that while not mandatory to get the car to start, users were asked to use it in order for the researchers to conduct their research.  You would enter your user ID, then enter what you were using the car for (commute, shopping, entertainment, road trip etc.) and then set off.  If your mission changed during that trip, they asked you to re-enter the current information.)  I’d like to stress that this sounds like a bit of a pain, but it was well explained when we signed up and, well, I felt maybe it could be my small contribution to humankind.  Certainly better than being a test specimen for a pharmaceutical company or something…

HondaTank

The cars themselves were standard 1998 Honda Civic GX’s, all Silver with Gray interiors, all automatic.  GX’s are modified at the factory for natural gas and based on the standard mid-range Civic LX.  The only difference is that it runs on Compressed Natural Gas instead of gasoline.  There is a tank in the trunk just behind the rear seat that does intrude on trunk room somewhat but for this project  was a non-issue.  There was probably room for one golf-bag left. (Sort of similar to how a hybrid car has less space than a standard version car.) The tank in the photo above is large but the pic makes it look HUGE due to the perspective of the camera.   The engine was a 1.6l 4-cylinder and had adequate power.  CNG generates a bit less power than gasoline but in this car it was adequate.  Range is less though, normally figured at just under 200 miles. 

HondaTankSchematic

It was very exciting (to me) to be part of this.  The money was a non-issue at the time and we tried to use the car as much as possible in the evenings and the weekends.  Since the cars were supposed to be fueled up at the lab it was unlikely that any of the Homeside users would need to find a station.  On Fridays I made sure that I chose a car that did in fact have close to a full tank.  However, if you wanted or needed to add CNG, you certainly could; Honda included a pamphlet in every car that showed all currently installed CNG stations.  Most were inside large fleet company grounds or on the site of Utility companies, but apparently with the smart card we’d be able to access them and pay for the fuel.  I did try to plan a trip to LA, but after a while decided it was probably a bad idea as the stations were really too few and far between, I suppose I was an early person to develop alternative fuel range anxiety. 

As far as the basic car itself beyond the CNG aspect, well, it’s a Honda.  I’d never had one before so that was novel as well.  (I’m telling you, I can geek out over almost ANY car, at least the first time I experience one.)  Civics are light, have a quiet engine, handle great and everything falls to hand exactly as you’d like it to.  All controls and switches are well weighted and the plastic touch-points feel pretty good.  Everything seems well designed and built for a purpose, that being to transport a user with a minimum of fuss to their destination and to so with minimal maintenance for the lifespan of the vehicle.  There was a little more road noise than I’d prefer on a freeway, but the car was built to a budget and it did not feel as if anything was skimped on that mattered. 

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An added benefit of a CNG vehicle (in California at least) is that they are allowed in HOV lanes without any passengers.  Several times since the study concluded I have contemplated buying a CNG car to do just that with, as an alternative to a Hybrid whose HOV stickers had an expiration date.  Californians will do almost anything to get into an HOV lane during the commute hours, including the “Casual Carpool” in Berkeley and Oakland wherein you ride in a car with complete strangers to avoid the bridge toll and the traffic.  I’ve done that as well and it does work very well but that’s really a subject for another article. 

While car-share programs sort of gross me out in general (who knows who drove it last or what their hygiene habits are?) as opposed to rental cars where I can at least delude myself into thinking that they are cleaned between use (I know that is untrue but it lets me sleep better at night so don’t comment with any horror stories, please), this program worked for me.  I figured (correctly as it turned out) that the Homeside people would be kind of like me (commuter that had the means to afford an extra car and were interested in the research aspect) and the Workside people were obviously Lawrence Livermore Lab employees and not just some Schmo off the street. 

HondaInterior

The research paper that was published afterwards (link is here: http://www.carsharing.net/library/PRR-2000-10.pdf ) had some interesting findings.  One Lab employee thought he was allowed to take the car home with him and started using it that way.  They clarified the rules to him very quickly as they saw his log when he entered the data in the car.  Refueling became an issue (not that I ever noticed) as some of the Homesiders lived quite a ways away and left the tank close to empty.  In the end a CarLink employee had to refuel some of the cars regularly during the research period in addition to what was originally thought.  It turns out that some of the heavier users of the cars were actually asked to leave the program early due to this issue. 

A bigger issue apparently was that sometimes the Lab employees did not carpool, checked out all the cars and then worked later that anticipated, leaving no cars for some Homesiders.  I never had a problem, but they apparently added a few more cars and retrained the Lab people.  There was also a paid-for Taxi service available if this happened but it was not used even once, people sometimes just waited until a car returned.  The study is fascinating reading and I can’t rehash all of it here, but it does appear that most of the problems encountered were on the Workside (Lab) end of the project as opposed to the Homeside, specifically to do with carpooling, parking in the correct area, and refueling. 

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Even though I was a participant I had no idea how much media interest there was in this program until I researched it over the last couple of days.  All types of media (TV, Radio, Print) apparently wanted to report on it at the time.  I guess I am adding to it here and used some of the other media reports to help with this article.  Overall I was very satisfied with the program and am happy and proud to have been a part of it.  And the Honda Civic GX was not a bad car, either…