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Green Commuter sought to subtly brand the Nissan Leafs it deployed here, company officials say, because they didn't want them to look like driving billboards for the car-sharing program.

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Green Commuter car-sharing program brings $9-an-hour Nissan Leafs to Chattanooga

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Learn more about Chattanooga’s electric car-sharing program at greencommuter.org/chattanooga or at www.facebook.com/greencommuterchattanooga

Any Chattanoogan with a clean driving record, a smartphone and $50 for an annual membership fee can now rent a Nissan Leaf for $9 an hour under an electric car-sharing service called Green Commuter Chattanooga that went live in October.

It's a program of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), the city's bus service, which got a $3 million grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to establish the electric car-sharing service.

"It just adds another transit option," says Brent Matthews, CARTA's director of parking, who thinks there's a growing market for those who only occasionally need a car. "You've got more and more people moving downtown. A lot of folks are going to one vehicle."

The car-sharing program works a lot like the Bike Chattanooga blue-and-yellow rental bicycles, with Leafs located around town that members can find, borrow and then return to the original starting point — via a smart phone app that's used to unlock the car and start the engine. No key is involved in the app-based system. (Unless the car's out of range of the Internet; there's a key in glove box for that situation.)

CARTA selected Green Commuter, a Los Angeles-based startup business, to provide 20 Nissan Leafs to be parked at some 20 new charging stations at locations downtown, at Northgate and Hamilton Place malls and at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

Green Commuter is a brand-new startup business, and Chattanooga is the first place it launched its car-sharing program. The company also plans to offer an electric van-sharing program for commuters in Los Angeles, too, using Tesla's Model X seven-passenger sport utility vehicle.

Green Commuter was founded by Gustavo Occhiuzzo, a native Argentinian and serial entrepreneur. The startup business received consulting help from Julian Espiritu, a former executive with Zipcar, the pioneering startup car-sharing business that was founded in 2000 and now has almost one million members.

Fiedler said CARTA's electric car-sharing idea was a good fit for TVA's $3 million Solar Assist Electric Vehicle Charging Program grant. CARTA will equip some of the electric car charging stations with solar panels that will feed electricity into EPB's power grid.

"Electric vehicles and solar-assisted vehicle charging maximizes the benefits of clean energy by reducing emissions, encouraging solar power and expanding electric transportation in Chattanooga," Fiedler says. "We hope that all of our efforts will increase the use of electricity as an alternative vehicle fuel source to lower transportation costs and improve our environment."

The electric car-sharing program was two years in the making. Another partner in the program is a Chattanooga consultant, the Prova Group LLC, whose CEO and principal Philip Pugliese designed and deployed the city's Bike Chattanooga bicycle-sharing program.

CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano said the typical motorist spends nearly $10,000 a year buying, insuring and operating a car, and the new car sharing program could help many people limit their transportation spending. Fewer vehicles would, in turn, free up downtown parking spaces and reduce urban pollution, program backers say.

Through the car-sharing program, drivers can rent a Leaf, which has a range of about 90 to 100 miles on a charge, for $9 an hour or $45 a day. Applicants need to go online to Green Commuter's website and prove they have a clean driving record and pay a $25 application fee and $50 annual membership fee (which for a limited time will be provided as a $50 driving credit.)

Chattanooga's Green Commuter program named its cars to give them some personality and help drivers remember which is theirs. The names include Iris, Pearl, Ross, Coolidge, Frazier, Smokey, River and Hamilton. Those Tennessee-centric names (Iris is the state flower; The freshwater pearl is the state gem) and Chattanooga-centric names are displayed each car in the form of a name tag that says, 'Hello, my name is.'"

Chattanooga is the first mid-sized city in the United States to get an electric car-sharing program, Fiedler said, which puts the Scenic City in the ranks of larger cities such as Seattle and Indianapolis.

"That's something all Chattanoogans need to be proud of," Fiedler says.

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