HONOLULU (KHON2) — State workers are starting to drive more electric vehicles and a fleet of brand new Teslas is catching attention.

Always Investigating has the story.

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There are a lot more electric vehicles on Hawaii’s roads these days, including Teslas, but KHON2 is getting a lot of questions about why so many Teslas for the State Department of Transportation (DOT)?

State cars and trucks usually look utilitarian, a bit worn around the edges and are never mistaken for a luxury car.

But when shiny new Teslas started showing up by the dozens, viewers asked KHON2 to dig deeper. Always Investigating asked the man in charge, Ed Sniffen, DOT deputy director at the Highways Division.

“I really appreciate the concern that you have to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible,” Sniffen said. “We’re not looking at purchasing luxury vehicles. We’re not looking at trying to pamper our employees. I would love everybody to understand that we’re looking at the best deals for the state. We could have considered optics and opted for the Chevy Bolt, but we would have gotten a less reliable vehicle at a higher cost.”

Sniffen said, that is because the Teslas came out at $1.49 per mile when taking telematics and charging stations into account and the Nissan Leafs and Chevy Bolts came out to $1.60 to $1.70 per mile.

“When they tell you that the per-mile cost of a Tesla is lower than a Nissan Leaf, that really does not compute,” said Panos Prevedouros, a transportation professor at the UH Manoa engineering school. “So there may be other fixed charges there that we don’t know about. Somebody is making some good bucks out of this between the contractor and Tesla and all.”

A contractor, Sustainability Partners, handles acquiring the cars from Tesla and handles the charging station component. It is all part of a new model for Hawaii government fleets called “mobility as a service,” where State and County agencies can electrify their fleets for a pay-per-mile usage fee. It is not the first foray into electric vehicles for the DOT, but it is the first on a pay-as-you-go 10-year contract that the State and all counties can use.

“We had procured I believe in 2019 of Chevy Bolts that cost us about $50,000 for the vehicle,” Sniffen recalled. “The charging station cost us another $15,000 to $20,000 to install the infrastructure for the charging station, then install our racks and everything like that. So overall total about $70,000 when we finished up. And still maintenance is on us, still insurances on us.”

It would have cost $2 million with the latest fleet replacements, but the new approach, “The hit to my bottom line is only about $170,000 for 43 new vehicles,” Sniffen said. “Because the Teslas were the best deal, we got 43 Teslas. But when you go out for the next bulk purchase of vehicles, it’s whatever vehicles are available and whatever technologies that gives us the best deal.”

He says the DOT will also also save on fuel, netting hundreds of dollars even after the cost of power, and driving more green in the process — to the extent that Hawaii’s power grid partially includes clean energy.

“We have some renewables, but they’re less than 30 percent,” Prevedouros said. “Actually, most of the time, they’re less than 20 percent. So 80 percent of our electricity is dirty. The argument that we’re saving CO2 really shouldn’t be even on the slide. It’s too early to try to claim that.”

The DOT says the Teslas are easier to track and verify they are being used just for work assignments, some employees are allowed to take them home, but not use them after hours besides the commute. They are also more practical from a size perspective and dwarf the Chevy Bolts side-by-side and in cubic interior space.

Skeptics say the agencies should be sure to watch the accounting and look back soon to make sure the anticipated savings are panning out.

“Let’s find out the full costs and what the contract says and what we actually paid for these vehicles,” Prevedouros said, “and what could have been if it was some cheaper gasoline vehicle or a different type of vehicle.”

Expect to see more State and County electric vehicles on the road, because Gov. David Ige signed HB552 into law on Thursday, June 24, to have a 100% zero-emission light duty fleet by 2035.

The current DOT conversion has cycled 43 Teslas into a fleet of 300 light duty cars so far. Sniffen says they will keep a close eye on the money and probably scale back the overall fleet size ultimately.

“We’re financing this out over time to make sure that we can afford this,” Sniffen said. “As we’re going through this we’re going to right-size the fleet. We’re going to use the telematics to give us that data, to give us that feel of what’s necessary in the system, and we’ll get rid of those that are not needed.”