Only seven of the more than 50,000 taxis and for-hire vehicles on the road in New York City were electric in 2013.
Those seven include two expensive Teslas that now sit idle, three city taxis that have since been sidelined, and one cab that has to turn off its heat to save electricity.
But there’s one driver among the seven who is doing just fine in his battery-powered car at a community car service in the Bronx.
Luis Castro, 65, who ferries around Medicaid patients for Llama Limousine in Mount Eden, has been driving the Chinese-made, electric BYD e6 for a couple of months. He says he makes more money than he did driving gasoline-powered cars.
When he first told his kids about his new car, they weren’t impressed. “Oh, Papi, nobody has an electric car,” he says they told him. “Why do you do that?” But he is undeterred. “Twenty years in the future, people will know I drove the first [electric] taxi car in the Bronx in New York City.”
Expense deters riders
The other two for-hire electric vehicles haven’t had as much success. Farrell Limousine Service on the Upper East Side hasn’t had a problem with the technical performance of its new electric vehicles. According to the company, its two Teslas have taken passengers as far as the Hamptons on one charge.
But they have had a hard time attracting customers. Because the Teslas cost 20 percent more than the average vehicle in its fleet, Farrell charges a markup for each ride.
The company wanted a luxury car to fit their company’s image. “Even though a Prius is an electric, it doesn’t have the same feel,” says Patrick Farrell, 38, one of the owners.
Customers had asked for an environmentally friendly option in the past, but few have opted for the more expensive option.
“It hasn’t taken off like we hoped it would,” Farrell says.
His company is planning to advertise its Teslas again in the spring, when snow and salt are less likely to damage the expensive new vehicles.
Tough times for electric taxis
Meanwhile, the city’s electric taxi trial has faced challenges. Originally, the city had four electric taxis. A Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) spokesperson wrote in an email that one was in an accident but didn’t disclose what happened to the other two.
Uppkar Thind, 43, who drives the only electric taxi that’s still on the road in the city, told reporters last fall that he enjoyed driving his Nissan Leaf more than any other car in his 17 years on the job. He said the attention he received in his electric powered vehicle downtown made him feel like “the Justin Bieber of taxi drivers.”
But now, he said it’s a struggle just to finish the year that he committed to, which ends in April.
“I am stubborn. I am dedicated,” Thind says. “I’m just doing it for the love now.”
When his customers agree, Thind has even stopped turning on the heat to extend the car’s range. “I let them know and they’re able to tolerate the five- or 10-minute ride,” he says.
During the summer and fall, Thind said he’s made as much or more money than he did in the past. But during the winter he said he is losing money by not driving his regular taxi.
The cold weather has brought the range of Thind’s Leaf down from between 45 and 75 miles per charge, to less than 35 miles because the batteries are less efficient in cold weather. On the coldest days he gets less than 25 miles per charge.
So Thind has had to turn away more customers and spend more time charging the car at one of the city’s two electric charging stations in Chinatown or Times Square.
The charging stations don’t always work either.
“These units are very sensitive,” Thind says. “They’re not like your normal gas pump. It has these little bugs and glitches and needs to be rebooted.”
He had to reboot it about 20 times over the course of the trial period and, even after calling technical support occasionally, he wasn’t able to get the charging stations to work.
More luxury expected
Unlike Thind, Castro doesn’t have to turn off the heat and still travels more than 120 miles per charge in the winter and even more the rest of the year. He says he pays $125 more on his monthly lease than before, but saves more than $300 on gasoline.
A spokesman for the maker of his e6—BYD, based in Los Angeles—says the reason for the car’s success in the Bronx can be found in the car’s design.
“The e6 was designed to be a taxi,” says Micheal Austin. He says it works well for someone like Castro who drives a lot. But the company hasn’t sold many yet because Austin thinks people still expect more luxury for a $50,000 car.
“It’s meant to be a high utility vehicle,” says Austin, referring to the e6. “But it doesn’t look like a Tesla S.”
Carlos Llama, the owner of the company Castro works for, Llama Limousines, says that so far he and Castro are pleased with the BYD. But they’re still working out all the details. For instance, they don’t understand exactly what maintenance it needs since the car hasn’t needed a tune-up yet.
“You have to understand that this is a new technology,” Llama says. “We have to learn how it’s going to work. That’s why we have this first driver to learn how.”
Both Thind and Castro emphasize that, if electric cars are going to take off, the key will be adding more charging stations.
In a comprehensive report issued in December 2013 on the future of electric cars in the city, the Taxi and Limousine Commission estimated that it would cost about $20 million per year to run 350 charging stations—which would bring in under $14 million in fees. Because the technologies are so new, the report said, these amounts could fluctuate significantly.