"Taxi!" And Make it a Battery Electric

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 26, 2012

My one electric taxi ride was in a Tokyo demonstration project, which is really kind of amazing. Why aren’t all the world’s taxis either hybrid or electric? Given the air pollution that hangs over most urban areas (and especially the 10-million-plus mega-cities that have become people magnets), it’s a no-brainer, and it’s not happening fast enough. But it is happening.

These Nissan Leaf taxis briefly plied the streets of London, offering free rides and promoting electric transportation. (Nissan UK photo)A case in point: Earlier this week (June 23 and 24), Nissan’s UK division was giving people free London cab rides in the Leaf battery car. All they have to do is tweet about the experience (using the hashtag #6XCHEAPER, because operating a gas taxi costs six times more. A trip from London to Heathrow is 85 cents of electricity, $2.60 worth of gas. Electrics also avoid London’s congestion charge.).

The special promotion is part of the “Big Turn On” campaign, which aims at getting a million people “charged up” about driving electric in 100 days. That makes a lot of sense. Arun Banskota, president of the eVgo electric charging program in Texas, told me that if people are just asked cold about considering an EV, only five percent raise their hands. Give them a drive, though, and the hand-wavers reach 55 to 60 percent.

Electric taxis have reduced impact on our beleagured planet, says Nissan. (Nissan graphic)This is a good program, but the end game should be permanent taxis on the street, not just fleeting feel-good events. The fact is, green taxis have done very well in service. San Francisco put Ford Escape hybrids on the street in 2005, and retired the first 15 of them in 2009, with more than 300,000 miles on many.  Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have also done well by hybrid taxis. Boston Cab, which services our fair city of Cambridge, is doing great--the company has 500 taxis, and 400 of them are hybrids. Drivers love them, because they often operate independently and pocket the savings on gas (which can be considerable, when the earlier car was a lumbering Crown Victoria).

On trips to Japan, I’ve been heartened by all the Prius taxis on the street, and Better Place put a group of Nissan taxis—with switchable batteries—in service in Tokyo. That was a time-bound experiment, but it’s a model for taxis around the world. Battery swapping works great for taxis, especially if they’re all the same car and can change packs at the central garage facility they already operate.

A Better Place battery-swapping taxi looks for fares in Tokyo. (Better Place photo)Better Place is furthest along in wiring Israel for electric cars, has installed swap stations around the country, and is selling the plug-in Renault Fluence Z.E. With support from Israeli President Shimon Peres and a high profile in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you’d think the next step would be plugging in the national taxi fleet. But Better Place hasn’t been able to get the country’s major taxi operators to sign on yet. Here's what Better Place's program in Japan looked like:

Better Place’s Julie Mullins tells me, “We’re more focused on private cars, but we have a few taxi programs that we have been, or are currently involved with, and the reason is simple: The key to electric taxis is battery switch. Taxis need to be on the go 24/7 with minimal downtime, and for electric cars, the only way this is possible in a scalable way is battery switching. In that way, a depleted battery can be replaced with a fully charged battery in about five minutes and the taxi is back on the road.

“Electric taxis offer local governments a practical solution for tackling low urban-level pollution and its impact on respiratory disease while reducing greenhouse gases. Cleaner air, less fuel consumption and no noise pollution. Imagine New York City with silent, zero-tailpipe taxis!”

Nissan's NV200 is set for the streets of New York as the "taxi of tomorrow"? But will there be an electric version? (Nissan photo)Actually, I do imagine that. Nearly 40 percent of New York City’s 13,000 yellow cabs have “gone green,” which translates to approximately 5,000 hybrid cabs (Ford Escapes, Toyota Camrys and Priuses), complemented by 1,667 hybrid buses. The city also has 430 electric vehicles of various types in its municipal fleet, including Chevrolet Volts operated by the police department. Nissan fielded six Leafs for a pilot electric taxi fleet in New York this year.

Despite all this, though, the electrification of New York’s fleet is far from assured. Nissan won the city’s flashy “Taxi of Tomorrow’’ competition with the minivan-ish NV200. It’s a cool vehicle, and very accommodating to passengers and their luggage, but it’s neither hybrid nor plug-in electric. According to Mark Izeman, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the new taxis are “unquestionably a step backwards environmentally compared to the hybrids already on the road.”

Izeman says that one factor in Nissan winning the contract with New York was its assurance that it could produce an all-electric NV200 by 2017, but there’s no requirement that the company actually build such cars. He adds that provisions in the contract could actually block more hybrid and electric taxis. In a follow-up email, Izeman tells me that NRDC was particularly concerned that the contract set limits on the price Nissan could charge for a taxi, thus precluding EVs from even being offered. There were also some language problems that could have given taxi owners "a legal hook to challenge even the introduction of a hybrid or electric version" of the NV200.

Izeman says some of these issues may be addressed in the final contract, which the environmental group hasn't seen yet. "We think there should be some requirement for Nissan to actually offer strong hybrid versions several years out," he said. "And perhaps an electric version toward the end of the contract."

Meanwhile, electric taxis are moving forward in Asia. In Japan, Nissan is launching the EV Taxi Share Station in Kanagawa Prefecture (Greater Tokyo) and Yokohama City. Again, darn it, it’s a three-month pilot program, running just through July 20.

The only country with an actual permanent battery car taxi fleet is China. The cars are BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) E6 electrics, and 10 of them have been carrying passengers since 2010. The program got some unwelcome attention last month when one of the taxis was hit from behind by a Nissan GT-R traveling at 112 miles per hour. The impact forced the taxi into a tree and sliced it open, igniting a fire that killed its three occupants. But BYD said that any gasoline car would have been destroyed by the same impact.

BYD put 10 electric taxis in service in Shenzhen, China in 2010. One burned in an accident, but gas cars could have fared the same. (BYD photo)China may well be the country that takes the lead on electric taxis. Its vanguard position on issues like this is one reason that a KMPG survey points to China as the likely first to plug in. China is planning $15 billion investment by 2015, when it will have 2,000 charging stations and 400,000 charging poles in 70 pilot cities. EVs could be 11 to 15 percent of the Chinese car market by 2026, the survey says, compared to six to 10 percent in the U.S.

If things go well, I’ll eventually be able to step out in the street, extend a finger, shout “Taxi!” and have a battery electric glide up so quietly I won’t even hear it coming.

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