New York’s New Taxi: It’s Electric?

As the new head of C40, an international consortium of 40 cities that have committed to reduce carbon emissions, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to promote the use of the electric taxi among C40’s membership base.

Twenty-five of the member city governments oversee taxi fleets that collectively top 1 million cabs; clearly, diminishing the carbon released by taxis in those cities alone would amount to huge cuts in global emissions.

However, Bloomberg might want to pay attention to what’s going on in his own back yard. New York City is drawing close to the end of its contest to find The Taxi of Tomorrow, a vehicle that will eventually replace the 13,000 taxis that crawl the streets of New York. The program started in 2009 with the aim of assembling a uniform fleet – the existing one comprises 16 different vehicles – that is safer, more environmentally friendly and more accessible for the partially or fully handicapped.

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) held a discussion Tuesday night on several of the designs in the running. Whispers in the past few months have put two particular models at the front of the pack: a light van based on Nissan’s NV200 and a similar van-like vehicle made by a Turkish company called Karsan. Despite Bloomberg’s decision to push electric vehicles, both of these designs – and indeed, the designs from most of the other entrants – run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is about 40 percent less expensive than the petroleum-based fuels we use now and reduces ozone-killing emissions by about 80 percent.

CNG-fueled vehicles cost about as much as hybrids, and though there is a smattering of CNG fueling stations around the city already, the TLC would either have to develop its own stations or incentivize their development so that the market supplies them sufficiently.

Electric vehicles are even more expensive than that, topping typical car prices by about $17,000. In addition to the elevated cost of the vehicles themselves, taxi companies would either have to suffer the revenue lost while charging vehicles for 30 minutes several times a day or implement a battery-swapping station as a company in Tokyo has been doing in its electric taxi pilot program. This extra infrastructure though adds costs, too: Battery swapping stations run about $500,000 a pop.

In choosing a design, city leaders must keep in mind that they will be affecting more than the city’s own taxis. Introducing a fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles will establish the infrastructure necessary for owning that particular kind of auto, reducing the barriers to owning that type of vehicle. So if the TLC chooses an electric car with battery-swap stations and plug-in charging lots, it would likely result in more New Yorkers putting their names on waiting lists for Nissan Leafs. If it chooses CNG vehicles, officials can expect a lot more of those plugging away through the Big Apple’s traffic.

Which should New York choose? Do you think Bloomberg will call for more proposals, this time for electric cars? And what do you think the ramifications will be for the rest of the city’s drivers?

Posted by Laura Williams on Nov 10, 2010

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