New York City’s experiment with electric taxis has been beset by problems, including long delays, technical malfunctions and a lack of willing participants.
Although the trial called for six participants, the most it has ever attracted is four, and that number dwindled down to one. Last month, City Limits' Bronx Bureau reported that the sole remaining driver had turned off his heat during the winter in order to extend the car's battery life because the driving range of his car had fallen so low.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) declined to comment then on what happened to the other participants. But after Bronx Bureau submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to TLC, the agency provided a memo sent to the TLC commissioners at the end of 2013, which described a long list of problems and setbacks. (For more information on FOIL requests, which anyone may submit, see the recent City Limits article on transparency so far in the de Blasio administration.)
The TLC offered a host of incentives encouraging taxi drivers to participate in the electric car trial, according to the memo. They offered a free Nissan Leaf for a year, a free charger installation at their homes, several months of credits to charge their vehicles for free and "a small stipend." In addition, the TLC would even grant drivers special permission to turn away passengers on long journeys.
But the drivers either didn’t qualify or weren't interested. Few drivers had a taxi medallion, lived near Manhattan and had a parking space off the street to charge the car. In July 2013, the TLC managed to find two drivers willing to participate. But less than a month later, one of those drivers had an accident and withdrew from the trial.
Fleet has problems
The TLC also found one taxi fleet willing to try out two Leafs. But the fleet stopped participating because its owner complained that, because the cars didn't travel far enough and took too long to charge, his drivers didn’t want to lease them.
Read the memo:
"Although they were saving money by not paying for fuel, it was not sufficient incentive for any of the drivers to go through the learning process necessary to become a successful EV [electric vehicle] operator," the report states.
The drivers in the trial found the new technologies difficult to understand, and had mechanical problems with one of the car’s batteries. Some drivers didn't understand that the "quick chargers" would only charge the battery up to 80 percent, and only slow chargers could bring the battery to full charge.
In addition, the electric chargers themselves would malfunction and the drivers said there was a "lack of customer service support."
"In a broader [electric vehicle] rollout, we would need to implement a seamless protocol for alerting drivers when chargers are down and directing them to others that are nearby," the report states.
Issues with chargers
The electric taxi trial was approved in 2011 but it didn't start until mid-2013, largely because of problems installing electric chargers.
"It was difficult to find properties that were convenient for drivers, met technical site requirements, and whose owners were interested in participating," according to the report. Even after two sites had been identified, it took six months for Nissan to agree to a contract with the landowners.
The problems that came up during the trial period are a far cry from the celebratory launch on Earth Day 2013, when, the report states, "One of the LEAF drivers picked up Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Yassky at Gracie Mansion and dropped them off at Rockefeller Center."
TLC: Pilot was valuable
TLC Spokesman Allan Fromberg said on Thursday that over the previous two weeks the TLC was finally able to attract three new drivers to participate in the trial.
“I don’t think several months ago we could’ve predicted we’d be back up to four as quickly as we were. So that’s good,” Fromberg said.
He thinks the trial can still be salvaged.
“I understand that it has some negative lessons learned but that is going to happen,” Fromberg said. “You can’t always have a happy ending to every aspect of a pilot otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for it.”
Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says the biggest challenges to a wide adoption of electric vehicles in New York will be the high cost of electricity here, a problem not faced in this trial. But, he says, trials like this are necessary.
"Eventually, all of our cars will be electric," Cohen says. "In the same way we replaced horses with the internal combustion engine. It's a question of where, when and how."
Trials like New York City's can help speed along this process, Cohen adds, by identifying key problems, such as the extreme impact that temperature had on the cars' performance during the trial.
"As these imperfections are identified, and the engineers get to work on them, it will get better," Cohen says. "If one of the problems is how well insulated is the battery compartment, they can look at whether it needs to be better insulated. Whatever it is that is causing it, you can try to figure out how to fix it."
An elusive goal
Cohen also says that more competition would help. During the trial, taxi drivers only had access to one vehicle, the Nissan Leaf. Instead of picking one "cab of the future," which could fail, he says it would be better to have 10 options, "so if one of them fails than nine of them will be okay."
But it may be difficult to meet former mayor Bloomberg’s goal of one-third electric taxis by 2020, according to Cohen.
"Automobiles last a long time compared to an iPhone so it takes a while before the technology turns over," Cohen says. But, he added, taxi fleets may switch over faster than everyone else because taxis are driven so much they constantly need to be replaced.