The case for the electric taxi

Why aren't we rolling in these already? Nissan Leaf test taxi at a charging station. Photo: Green Car Reports

Why aren’t we rolling in these already? Nissan Leaf test taxi at a charging station. Photo: Green Car Reports

In his January 2013 State of the City Address, Mayor Bloomberg called for a one-third electric taxi fleet by 2020. To see what it will take to meet this goal, he commissioned the Long-Term Electric Taxi Task Force. The task force is led by the Taxi and Limousine Commission and is a collaboration between City agencies, the taxi industry, the real estate industry, the Port Authority, and non-profit stakeholders.

— description from the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission website, emphasis ours.

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The easy-to-use British government simulator My 2050 shows many kinds of energy decisions necessary to achieve the 2°C limit, a goal that may help save us from endless levee construction. By using sliders on the right side of the My 2050 simulator you can test out the effect of a shift towards electrifying private vehicles, as well as the benefit of mass transit (in cities, along with walking and bicycling, transit is generally the most efficient transportation option). In the United States, cars and trucks produce nearly one fifth of U.S. emissions.

New York City taxis drive an average of 70,000 miles a year, getting much more use than a private car, making them an ideal candidate for electrification. Therefore, the question arises: Why haven’t we seen more effort towards electric taxis in America’s most populous city?

Decarbonizing our city requires a fast drop in emissions from vehicles, which can be accomplished by electrics if those vehicles are, in turn, powered from a grid based on renewables or nuclear.

Dense cities may be a quicker fit for electric vehicles than the long distance travel elsewhere in the US. Shorter journeys stay within battery range, and urban trips crisscross in a small area, so charging infrastructure can be more efficient.

Electrics can make a city more livable in other ways. They are emission free, which improves air quality, and electrics do not contribute to the urban heat island effect, which causes urban centers to be anywhere from 2 to 10 degrees hotter than the suburbs. As pointed out by Brian Stone, Jr. in his book The City and the Coming Climate, internal combustion vehicles themselves radiate large amounts of excess heat (both from engine radiators and their tail pipes), compounding the heat island effect in summer months.

New York City’s attempts at electrification

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg started New York City’s electric taxi movement in January 2013, in his last year in office, with the goal to have one third of the city’s 13,437 yellow cabs electric by 2020. If reached, that target will result in an 18% reduction in total taxi CO2e emissions, and because taxis get so much more use than the average car, the effect is powerful – converting 4,000 taxis has the effect of converting 35,000 private cars!

The city approved the Electric Vehicle Pilot Program in 2011, which finally launched in April 2013. The year-long pilot program planned to offer year-long use of six electric Nissan Leafs to current NYC cabbies. These drivers received credits to use at the “quick charge” stations in the city to recharge during their shifts as well as having full chargers installed at their residences. [Corrected and updated from the initial version of this piece – see footnote 1.]

In December 2013, four months into the program, it was revealed that only four of the pilot cars had ever been assigned and only one of which was still being used. Two of the cars were assigned to individual drivers, and the other two were assigned to a taxi fleet, which shortly stopped participating since the employees preferred to drive regular taxis as to not deal with the 30 minute recharge mid-shift, which eats into profits.

The failure to test all six cars was not due to a lack of interest from the industry, but rather a lack of eligible applicants. The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) required drivers to have their own medallion, a residence with off-street parking where a charger could be installed, and to live close to Manhattan so that they don’t spend too much battery power commuting to the city center. These standards are difficult to achieve, especially considering that 93% of drivers live outside of Manhattan, and the average wage of a taxi driver is $22,820 a year.

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TLC public affairs officer Greg Gordon spoke to City Atlas and explained the challenge of testing electric cabs without yet having numerous charging stations, which has been a big hurdle:

The home charger is necessary if access to public chargers are not plentiful. Until an abundance of public chargers are readily available in NYC it will be necessary for drivers to have a home charger, and therefore, it will be an obstacle for the average driver to make the switch. As we found out from our months of trying to recruit participants, there are not many drivers who have homes that have a driveway, let alone a garage to house a charger, that are in close proximity to Manhattan.

So there is a ‘Catch 22’ in testing electric cabs; it’s hard to prove how well they work until you have chargers easy for drivers to use around town, and it’s hard to acquire the proper fast chargers until the industry and private users are sold on the prospect of thousands of electric cabs.

The pilot program, as described by the TLC, provides an “opportunity to learn more about the charging infrastructure necessary to support not only electric taxis, but also to encourage individual EV ownership in New York City.”

A comparison of charging times. (TLC "Take Charge")

In NYC the only answer is quick. TLC “Take Charge”)

Widespread adoption of electric taxis would provide charging infrastructure that would benefit private car owners too, as they begin to switch to electric. Once over the hurdle of creating a network of fast charging stations, the benefits to the city again could multiply.

With only four cars tested by unrepresentative drivers, its hard to believe that the findings can be used to draw conclusions about how to implement an electric taxi system. Yet, despite some shortcomings, the program does offer important insight into the major roadblocks the city will need to tackle in order to achieve Bloomberg’s goal.

The pilot driver

The main pilot driver in TLC’s EV program, Uppkar Thind, began the program with enthusiasm, saying that having a zero-emissions vehicle was akin to being the “Justin Bieber of taxi drivers.” In this video interview by CNN at the beginning of the yearlong test, he says that “city is the ideal condition” for electric vehicles: “We live and breathe in this city, I spend more time in Manhattan than I do at home, so you know, why not breathe cleaner air?”

For Thind, the 30 minute recharge time was worth the wait, measured against saving on gasoline. “The fuel savings alone are substantial when you’re saving $40 a day, because the electricity charges will be no more than $5 a day.”

But in a more recent interview, in March of 2014, Thind revealed that working through the winter was hard. In cold weather, running the heater drains the battery faster. (This is a twist on the hot weather engineering advantage of cool-running electrics; in winter, in a gas-powered car, you have heat because the engine itself produces it.) He must spend more time recharging the car, cutting into his income. He asserted that “I am stubborn. I am dedicated. I’m just doing it for the love now.” Thind is committed to the cause, but it’s unlikely all of the 13,000 other New York City cab drivers will be as motivated.

Roadblocks and solutions for electric taxis:

Despite obvious issues, TLC remains positive, stating that “The pilot program proves that using electric vehicles as taxis can work and it is working for the participants involved.”

One concern brought up by the program is that the Nissan Leaf has a relatively small battery at 24kWh, with a range of about 84 miles per charge.

“The typical taxi drives around 115 miles per 12-hour shift,” explained Gordon. This means that a driver must charge his car at least once within the shift, and since the mid-shift “quick charges” take 30 minutes and only charge the battery up to 80%, the break for charging cuts into profits for cabbies. Therefore, it will be valuable for the city to consider other electric cars with larger batteries and longer range such as the Nissan e-NV200 which can travel 105 miles per charge and the Tesla Model S, with 60kWh or 85kWh batteries providing 208 to 265 miles per charge.

Fast chargers in NYC (plugshare.com)

Three fast chargers now in NYC, 247 to come. (plugshare.com)

Gordon explained to us that this is not an easy solution because “currently, there are only a handful of EV models that could meet this range demand and unfortunately, those vehicles are very expensive (when compared to the average cost of a gas powered taxi).”

Winter performance remains an issue, as Thind revealed that in cold weather his range is limited to less than 35 miles per charge, and he often asks customers if he can turn off the heat to conserve power. While all EVs are affected by cold weather, there are differences between models [corrected and updated from the initial posting – see footnote 2]. The BYD e6 described in a City Limits article on electrics has fared slightly better, thus reinforcing the need for competition in the electric car industry and the freedom of taxi drivers to select their own cars, which Mayor de Blasio seems to be supporting with his continued critique of the Taxi of Tomorrow initiative.

Major complaints by the pilot drivers are the scarcity and lack of reliability of fast charging stations, or Level III chargers. For the pilot program, drivers were given access to two privately-owned but publicly accessible Level III chargers, both of which are in Midtown [corrected and updated from the initial version of this article – see footnote 3]. A Google search shows that there are hundreds of slow, or overnight, charging stations around the city, but only a few that are fast chargers.

Pilot drivers had the incentive to use the two publicly accessible quick chargers over the others because of the speed of their charge and the ability to use their credits. It seems logical for TLC to invest in creating their own public charging infrastructure, which provides an excellent example of how TLC can revamp their business model to capitalize on the system of the future. As Gordon puts it:

“The taxi industry, generally, is a non-stop industry with very little down time. Access to public quick chargers would be essential for a large scale rollout to ensure that enough cars are staying on the roads to meet passenger demand and to create a profitable business model for owners. A large majority of taxis are double shifted making charging for 6-8 hours per day on a Level II charger [a slow charger] a deal breaker for most owners.”

TLC has extended the pilot program until April 2015 to better learn how to bring electrics to the city. Greg Gordon of TLC explained, “One of the key priorities of the pilot is to ascertain whether EVs are compatible with the taxi industry’s most prevalent business models, and I don’t think we’ve sufficiently accomplished that.”

Other cities are experimenting with electric taxis: in Hong Kong, there are now 45 BYD e6’s on the road (out of 18,000 taxis), and some of the same challenges — charging time, primarily — crop up, as shown in an April, 2014 article in Time Out Hong Kong.

BYD e6 electric taxi, Hong Kong (Wikipedia)

BYD e6 electric taxi, Hong Kong (Wikipedia)

Here in New York, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has produced a very thorough and informative report (pdf) titled “Take Charge: A Roadmap to Electric New York City Taxis”. Bullet points from the report include (emphasis ours):

Key Findings:

Number of Chargers

• We estimate that a network of 350 50kW quick chargers would be needed to ensure that drivers in a 1/3-electric taxi fleet would have access to chargers when they need them.

• This suggests that the ratio of chargers needed to electric vehicles on the road is about 1:13. [4000 cabs served by 350 quick chargers]

• Therefore EV adoption in the taxi fleet would require a significant infrastructure investment.

• A phased rollout of both electric taxis and quick chargers would help determine whether real-world charger needs align with this estimate, or if they are higher or lower.

As a government commissioned entity, TLC has the responsibility to serve the city and its people. Climate change is going to affect global business models, regardless of when we start reducing our carbon footprint. Since it is only a matter of time until we are forced to start restructuring our very lives, planning for a post-carbon world can be justifiably fast-tracked. A fleet of chargers adequate to 4000 cabs might between $20M to $30M, not insignificant, but part of the overall restructuring our city is going to undergo in the next decade regardless. That would be a case for the TLC to accelerate the investment in a city-wide charging infrastructure and in providing subsidies for taxi drivers purchasing electric vehicles.

In addition, to balance against the cost of additional chargers (the limiting factor in switching over to electric), perhaps longer range models of taxis, including Teslas, could be included in the mix via subsidies. If a quick charger, installed, costs approximately $50,000, then the option of subsidizing a longer range vehicle for a proportion of the fleet, lessening the demand on the charging stations, might be a reasonable option.

Of all things the city can do beyond building improvements, converting to electric taxis may be one of the most immediate, and visible, ways to begin reaching Mayor de Blasio’s 80% by 2050 decarbonization plan.

Our decisions about vehicles can’t be put off far into the future. New studies focus on a very real threshold, because fossil fuel burning machinery, whether a coal power plant or an automobile, continues to run, and produce emissions, for decades after it is built. Every new gasoline-powered car that rolls off an assembly line pushes us closer to crossing the 2° C limit.

One startling analysis names 2018 as the point after which no new coal plants, or gasoline-powered autos, should be added to the mix, except as replacements. In turn, new electric vehicles and carbon-free generation should begin to supersede fossil fuel technology, if not that year, within as short a time span as possible. A very good sign on this path will be when the cab someone half a block up from you steals on a rainy night is an electric.

Footnotes:

[1] An earlier version of the article said that drivers in the Electric Taxi Pilot Program had free access to the chargers, when in fact they were given a limited amount of free credit toward their charging needs.

[2] An earlier version of the article said that it seemed that not all electric vehicles seem to be affected by cold weather, when in fact all EVs face this issue, although different battery types and larger battery sizes may have advantages in cold weather. [MIT Technology Review, Plug In Cars.] [3] An earlier version of the article said that the city built two quick chargers in Midtown, when in fact these are privately owned and available to the public.