These days, hybrid cars are commonplace. Nearly everybody knows somebody who drives a hybrid. How quickly things have changed. Just a few years ago, only environmentalists, techno-geeks, and celebrities drove them (at least, according to many media reports). A March 2002 article on Salon.com called hybrids, “the elite feel-good toys of the limousine liberal set.” The article poked fun at Prius-driving Cameron Diaz, who explained hybrid technology on the Tonight Show. “It, like, shuts down and then all of a sudden you just step on the gas and you’re going. It’s unbelieve—I’m thrilled. I’m so excited, ‘cause it’s, like, our future. That’s our future.”

Well, the hybrid future is quickly becoming the hybrid present. Along the way, gas-electric auto technology shed its elite image, appealing to an ever-growing number of regular folk interested in saving money at the pumps or doing their small part to reduce our dependency on oil. Then what do we make of the emergence of hybrid limousine services?

Black and Green

In Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, you can hire an environmentally conscious chauffeured limousine service to pick you up in a black Prius. In New York, OZOcar launched its service in Sept. 2005 with 30 Toyota Priuses, and expects to have nearly 80 available hybrids by the end of the year. The OZOcar hybrids are equipped with high-speed wireless Internet access, an Apple iBook and over 150 Sirius satellite radio stations in the back seat. OZOcar’s originates directly from the hybrid-celebrity era. One of its founders, Jordan Harris, previously founded Virgin Records US and “Rock the Vote”—as well as the “Green Car to the Red Carpet” which delivered Cameron Diaz, Sting, and other celebrities to the Oscars in a Prius.

PlanetTran of Cambridge, Mass., the first fuel-efficient public auto service in the country, has slightly more humble beginnings. R. Seth Riney, a local entrepreneur and Yale graduate, started PlanetTran after making a New Year’s Day resolution in 2003 to question American’s public transportation system. In the company brochure, Riney writes, “I wondered why hired vehicles such as taxis and limousines still were based on traditional platforms: Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car. Why are livery fleets, the largest class of public vehicles on city streets, comprised mostly of large, inefficient, gas-guzzling beasts?” Traditional limos commonly get fuel economy in the low teens, while the Toyota Prius can break the 50-mpg mark.

A Chauffeur with a Mission

By achieving remarkably better fuel economy, the operating expense for a hybrid-based limousine is significantly lower than a traditional limo. Y. Fray, chief executive officer of ECOLIMO of Los Angeles, said the Priuses cost less to purchase, maintain, and fuel than her company’s Lincoln Town Cars, which you have to fill up once a day. Filling up the Town Car “costs about fifty bucks every single day,” she said.

Fray, who has been driving a limo for 20 years, said that the recent increases in gas prices, have forced limo companies around the country to charge more. “Clients are paying a fuel surcharge, as much as 5 or 10 % of the hourly rate. Some companies are charging three dollars more per hour.” Instead, Fray passes the hybrid’s fuel savings to the customer. “I don’t charge the rates that big luxury cars charge. Our rates are above a taxi but lower than most black car services.” OZOcar and PlanetTran also offer competitive rates.

So far, the Prius hybrids have not posed a problem in terms of cargo or passenger space. The backseat passenger space is only a couple of inches smaller than a Town Car. According to Fray, most business travelers are single passengers with one piece of luggage. She qualifies clients when the reservation is booked. For larger parties, ECOLIMO offers a Chevrolet Surburban SUV, outfitted to run on compressed natural gas.

The cost savings of hiring a Prius to take you to the airport or to an urgent business meeting may transform hybrid limos from a power play of the elite to a smart dollars and cents decision. Yet, for Fray, it’s not merely about economics. “I show up in the ecolimo, and it raises consciousness. More and more people are realizing that our resources are not infinite. The clients realize that people like me are out there trying to do something positive. It raises awareness.” The long-term vision of Fray and the other hybrid limo entrepreneurs is to have an ecolimo service available in every major city.

> San Francisco is the latest city to add hybrid limo service. Green Car Limo features the Toyota Prius with custom leather interiors.