Some Firms Give Workers Financial Incentives to Buy Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

Faced with rising gas prices and increasing concerns about pollution, companies are writing checks to employees to buy cars that are more fuel-efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Employers have long doled out perks -- everything from health insurance to silver watches --to make their companies a little more attractive to workers.

Now faced with rising gas prices and increasing concerns about pollution, companies are writing checks to employees to buy cars that are more fuel-efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Greg James, founder of software publisher Topics Entertainment in Renton, is cutting $1,000 checks to any of his 55 employees who downgrade engine sizes -- and double that if they trade in a high-powered V-8 for a fuel-efficient four-cylinder. He also is offering $2,000 toward the purchase of a hybrid, though no employee has bought one yet.

James said he recognizes not everyone will take advantage of his company's car-pool incentive program or ride a bus to work. He still drives a 4-cylinder SUV. But it's nothing like the beast he used to drive -- the gas-guzzling machine that prompted him to create the Eco Car Incentive program three years ago.

"We aren't all going to turn in our cars for bikes," said James, whose company donated about $425,000 to environmental causes last year.

The green-car movement has caught on elsewhere, too. Hyperion, a software company based in Santa Clara, Calif., committed $1 million a year toward the purchases of hybrids, offering employees $5,000 each.

Since the Drive Clean to Drive Change program began in November, about 50 employees have taken advantage of it, said Phyllis Davidson, executive communications director, who was one of the first employees to participate.

"It's purely to help keep the worse kinds of cars off the road," said Davidson, reporting the company's CEO also has traded for a hybrid.

Outdoor-apparel firm Timberland in New Hampshire is offering $3,000 toward hybrid purchases to any of its 6,000 employees who have worked at the company two years or more. Four employees have taken advantage of the program, which was introduced at the end of 2004.

For the past few years, hybrid cars have become an attractive option thanks to their potential to reduce both fuel consumption and emissions.

Getting about 50 miles per gallon, a hybrid is powered by an electric motor and a combustion engine -- meaning drivers can fill up at standard pumps.

But while they are hailed as the cleanest cars on the market today, hybrids cost about $6,000 to $7,000 more than their gasoline-fueled counterparts. It could take anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 miles to break even solely on gas savings for the increased expense.

"Any time you get a more fuel-efficient car, it is going to be less polluting to the environment from a greenhouse-gas standpoint," said Dave Kircher, air-resources manager at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Kircher said a car's mileage per gallon correlates closely with the quantity of emissions produced. For instance, a car that gets 30 mpg would emit half as much carbon dioxide as one that gets 15 mpg.

The market's largest SUVs could cost the average driver more than $2,500 a year in gas, while a midsize sedan is more like $850 a year for the same amount of driving. Driving a hybrid would cost about $500.

In addition, the carbon dioxide and volatile organic-compound emissions are a third of what a large vehicle would produce, according to data from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

"Promoting the use of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars here may seem like a drop in the bucket, but if we all just reduced our consumption by a relatively small amount, we'd live in a much safer and cleaner world," James said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News