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Having their S.U.V.'s and converting them, too

by Fara Warner
New York Times, 4/11/04

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KEVIN RICHARDSON, who at 32 is the oldest member of the Backstreet Boys, took delivery last week of his 2004 GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle. He raves about its "F.B.I. look" - all black and chromeless, with lacquered wheel rims - and the 5.3-liter V-8 engine that puts close to 300 horsepower under the hood.

And he dreams of ordering a customized license plate for this, his perfect Hollywood ride. It would read "CLEAN."

That may sound as contradictory as Mr. Richardson himself - an avowed environmentalist with an ungreen hankering for big, powerful cars - but, in fact, he is spending more than $10,000 to convert the Yukon to run on compressed natural gas, a domestically produced fuel that is less polluting than gasoline. The conversion will include the installation in his garage of a refueling system, which will let him fill up the Yukon by using the same gas line that supplies his house.

To do the conversion, he has hired Evo Transportation, a company started by two former entertainment industry executives, David Young and Seth Seaberg.

The two men, who had virtually no automotive experience but a lot of Hollywood connections, have built a bustling business in Los Angeles by offering environmentally friendly but cool rides. Their Evo boutique limo service features three black S.U.V.'s much like Mr. Richardson's. The vehicles also have Game Boy consoles and minibars stocked with organic goodies like soy-based vodkas and soft drinks made from green tea. Celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Woody Harrelson are regular customers.

"We figured, 'Why should people compromise?' " said Mr. Seaberg, who before founding Evo with Mr. Young was chief executive of Ray Gun Publishing, which publishes the magazine Bikini. (Mr. Young ran Bliss Artist Management, which managed rock bands.)

Unlike cars powered by electricity, a vehicle fueled by natural gas has the same power and performance - and can carry the same weight - as an identical vehicle fueled by gasoline. "You actually can get all the luxury of a big S.U.V. with none of the guilt," Mr. Seaberg said.

Now Evo is ramping up its next and potentially far bigger business: converting S.U.V.'s for Hollywood's elite - and anyone else with $10,000 or more to spend -as well as converting smaller vehicles like General Motors' new Chevrolet Colorado pickup for corporate and municipal fleets. Their municipal customers already include the City of Santa Monica and Los Angeles County.

As traditional automakers continue bickering over the future of hybrids and hydrogen, Evo is offering consumers alternate-fuel versions of the vehicles they want to drive right now.

The limo service will expand, but its founders say it was just a start toward creating a company based on the idea of alternative fuels. "The limo business was a scaleable business and got us good cash flows pretty quickly," Mr. Young said. The service started in April 2003 and became profitable in the first quarter of 2004, and the two men say they expect to have $2 million in revenue this year.

A ride in an Evo limos costs $75 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. The company said it logged 2,000 hours of service last year, 60 percent of them for hauling celebrities to events like the Academy Awards or Emmy Awards ceremonies. More important, Mr. Young said, the limo service brought the vehicles to the attention of the very customers who were likely to buy an S.U.V. conversion.

Evo has received $500,000 in venture capital to expand its limo fleet into other California cities. And more celebrities are expressing interest in conversions. Brad Pitt requested a proposal for a conversion after he rode in an Evo limo to a pre-Oscars party.

As for Mr. Richardson, he said he saw his first Evo S.U.V. in May 2003, when he showed up at a forum for the Natural Resources Defense Council featuring Arianna Huffington, the syndicated columnist, who has been pressing Detroit automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars. The topic that day was "Breaking the Chain of Oil Dependency." Mr. Richardson showed up in a gas-guzzling Mercedes CL500 sports car that gets about 16 miles to the gallon.

"I was looking for some place to hide my ride when I saw this S.U.V.," Mr. Richardson said. The converted Evo S.U.V.'s have labels saying, "powered by clean natural gas."

I didn't want to be a hypocrite anymore," said Mr. Richardson, who operates an environmental foundation called Just Within Reach. "I want to walk the walk if I'm going to talk the talk." He sought out the S.U.V.'s owners, and Mr. Seaberg let him take the vehicle for a drive after the meeting.

In addition to spreading the word at environmental events, the Evo founders have hired several drivers with M.B.A.'s who serve as business development employees when they are not on the road.

In effect, the drivers are missionaries for the Evo brand. Jacob Ryan, who drives for Evo and holds an M.B.A. from Schiller International University in Madrid, can reel off a host of facts and figures about Evo-mobiles. They have a range of about 175 miles on a fill-up. The gas is stored in several high-pressure tanks under the rear of the vehicle. It takes about the same time to refill the high-pressure tanks with compressed natural gas as it does to fill up a conventional tank at a gas station.

And natural gas is cheaper than gasoline. "It's $1.39 per equivalent gallon at a lot of stations, but if you go the airport it's 30 cents cheaper and there's no line," in contrast to the usual queue at regular gas stations, Mr. Ryan said. That compares with more than $2 a gallon for regular gasoline throughout much of California. "And it has 90 percent less emissions than regular gasoline engines," he added.

Despite its recent successes, Evo, like other alternative-fuel companies, faces formidable challenges. Most notable is the continued emphasis of the auto industry and the federal government on hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Compressed natural gas, which has been used most extensively in corporate and municipal fleets, including thousands of buses around the country, has become a stepsister to what experts envision as a far more exciting transportation economy based on hydrogen fuel cells.

NATURAL gas has been pumped from underground reservoirs for decades to heat homes and businesses. In the 1980's, the gas was commercialized as a transportation fuel by compressing it so it could be stored in portable tanks. Hydrogen fuel, by contrast, is made by the complex process of breaking apart molecules that contain hydrogen atoms. That is one reason experts say that compressed natural gas still has a future.

"We're driving down this hydrogen highway and that's hurting compressed natural gas," said Rebecca J. Royer, president of the Baytech Corporation, a manufacturer based in Los Altos, Calif., that provides Evo with conversion parts and does conversions for big corporate clients like United Parcel Service. "Everybody is saying it's better to just wait for the hydrogen economy."

Evo also has to contend with the rapidly expanding popularity of the hybrid gas-electric vehicles, like the Prius. Evo said it planned to add a few Priuses to its limo fleet. Even S.U.V.'s will soon be available as hybrids, as Ford Motor and Toyota add them to their lineups this year.

It is also true that many gasoline-powered vehicles produce far lower emissions than they did in the 1980's, reducing one of the benefits of natural gas. "The inherent advantages of natural gas have diminished in the past three or four years as superclean gasoline and diesels have come on the market because of tighter emissions regulations," said Tom Cackette, chief deputy executive director of the California Air Resources Board, which regulates emissions in the state. "It's hard for natural gas to compete."

Still, Evo's founders appear undaunted. To the idea of a future fueled by hydrogen, they argue that compressed natural gas can be a helpful steppingstone. "Right now, you have consumers who think hydrogen in a tank in their car is like riding with a bomb," Mr. Seaberg said. "But storage of hydrogen and natural gas aren't that different. So if you get comfortable with one, you'll feel comfortable with the other one."

Mr. Richardson of the Backstreet Boys does not seem especially worried about fueling up next to his home. In fact, he says he is happy to have such a convenient refueling station, allowing him to get natural gas at a price equivalent to 80 cents a gallon of gasoline. The fuel system in his garage is "the size of a small water cooler," he said, and the cost of the fuel he uses is added to his home gas bill.

Hybrids, meanwhile, still use gasoline, albeit in smaller quantities than a regular S.U.V. does. If gasoline becomes more and more expensive, even hybrid S.U.V.'s might be regarded as guzzlers.

Mr. Ryan, the Evo driver, said such issues could change the minds of even Hollywood's most vocal environmentalists. "Now Arianna can finally ride in an S.U.V.," he joked as he waited to hear the name of his first celebrity passenger of the day. Alas, it was not Ms. Huffington.

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