By early next year, Indianapolis (yes, Indianapolis) is likely to have the largest fleet of municipal electric vehicles in the country. That means 425 plug-in vehicles in the "Freedom Fleet." Isn’t that cool? And Indy doesn’t have to go into hock to make it happen, either.

Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, vowed to convert the city’s fleet to plugs back in 2012. Now he’s making good on that practice with help from a new start-up company called Vision Fleet. Essentially, the city is following the playbook of solar companies like SolarCity and Sungevity, which have doubled solar buy-in with their zero-money-down leasing option.

Freedom Fleet vehicle in Indianapolis

Look for this logo when you see city vehicles on the road in Indianapolis. (Photo: Vision Fleet)

Essentially, Indianapolis will be tapping into a new fleet of Chevrolet Volts, Ford Fusion Energis and Nissan Leafs, basically renting them from Vision Fleet. Fire inspectors will be driving them, public works guys, code inspectors, public safety people. CEO Michael Brylawski says, “We’ve fitted some Volts with gun racks.” Vision Fleet will also lead efforts to make Indy EV ready.

It might be helpful for municipal fleets if someone was offering an electric pick-up truck, but the carmakers (after bringing us a plug-in Ranger a while back) don’t have one at the moment. A North Carolina start-up is planning a $38,000 Condor pick-up, a ground-up design, but that work-in-progress (I got a ride in Raleigh recently) is still in its early stages. The available sedans will have to do.


The Condor truck is aimed at municipal and corporate fleets. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

“Mayor Ballard isn’t doing this as a climate initiative, but because of energy security,” said Brylawski. “He’s an ex-Marine who fought in the Gulf War.” I ran into Ballard at the big EV show, EVS 27, in Barcelona, Spain last year, and he pointed out that it can cost $400 to deliver a gallon of gasoline to troops fighting in Afghanistan. Ballard said he’d convert the entire fleet of 3,500 by 2025, so he’s off to a good start.

For every 1,000 vehicles delivered to city fleets in 2013, only five used plugs. Despite the brave talk from many cities (including New York, where EVs really make sense) electric fleets really haven’t happened. The barrier, Brylawski argues, is broad — higher upfront costs, operational risk, a lack of infrastructure. “We guarantee the savings,” he said. “Vision Fleet delivers the cars and takes the risks.” Indianapolis’ costs for renting the fleet will be known in advance, so there are no budget uncertainties.

There are bottom-line reasons to make the switch to electric. Each EV in Indy’s fleet will save 50 gallons of gas per month, and when all 425 are in place next year (21 are on the ground now) the city will be on track to save $9 million over the course of the 10-year program.

Bollore Bluecar

Paris' Bollore Bluecars are coming to ... Indianapolis. (Photo: Autolib)

Obviously, the Indianapolis model can be extended to other cities, and we’ll be hearing about that. But this metro area is really excelling. The Indy suburb of Carmel was an early adopter of solar powered fast charging, and the city was chosen as the first U.S. deployment for the French Autolib’ car-sharing network. That alone is expected to put 1,200 chargers on the region’s streets (in 200 locations). In Paris, Autolib’s Bollore Bluecars have made more than half a million trips, and have more than 37,000 subscribers.

EVs will take off with mass adoption. A few of them widely scattered just doesn’t work. You need critical mass, and that’s what’s happening in Indianapolis, and both Orlando, Florida and Fort Collins/Loveland, Colorado, thanks to a “deployment communities” effort by the Washington-based Electrification Coalition.

Says the Coalition CEO Robbie Diamond, "Consumer experience is key to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles. Deployment communities, like Drive Electric Northern Colorado, and municipal fleets, like Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s Freedom Fleet, are critical drivers in exposing consumers to EV technology and cost savings."

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.