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USA: GE builds green-car testing ground for corporate fleets

MINNEAPOLIS — One of the world’s top leasing companies is betting that corporations with fleets of cars and trucks increasingly will want them to be powered by electricity and other alternatives to fossil fuels.

That bet will be partly tested at a half-mile track in Minnesota.

To showcase green vehicles to corporate clients, GE Capital Fleet Services, a major player in commercial vehicle leasing, has built the test track and a showroom filled with Chevrolet Volts, Nissan Leafs and more exotic alternatives at its U.S. headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Industry officials said GE’s “Vehicle Innovation Center,” which opened this week, is the first of its kind — a place where fleet managers from around the country will be invited to test drive everything from a small plug-in electric car to a semitrailer truck powered by liquefied natural gas.

The center is the vision of Debora Frodl, GE’s global alternative fuels leader, who says commercial vehicle fleets are emerging as early adopters of hybrid electrics and other alternative-power vehicles.

“We are seeing it,” Frodl said of the corporate shift to alternative-fuel vehicles. “It’s real.”

GE’s fleet services business already has 1.4 million vehicles under lease, and helps clients by advising them on cars and trucks that best suit their needs. Then GE acquires and finances the vehicles and, finally, tracks how well they perform.

Frodl said corporate fleet managers are interested in alternative-powered vehicles because, unlike many consumers, they look at a vehicle’s cost, including fuel, over its expected life. Alternative-powered vehicles typically carry a higher price tag but save on fuel.

“Many consumers look only at the up-front cost,” she said. “Fleet managers look at the total cost of ownership.”

GE, which also makes plug-in electric charging stations, has said it plans to acquire 25,000 electric vehicles for its corporate fleet by 2015. Some employees of GE fleet leasing in Eden Prairie already drive gas-electric cars that are recharged at plug-in stations in front of the corporate offices.

Though the company didn’t disclose the cost of the Vehicle Innovation Center, a city planner said its value was assessed at $949,000. GE also upgraded its adjacent headquarters building with displays about GE innovations.
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