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This article originally appeared in City Limits on March 11, 2014

By: Oliver Morrison

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.

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This follow-up article appeared in City Limits on April 7, 2014.

Report Details Woes of NYC’s Cab Experiment

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.

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.

City Limits FOIL: NYC TLC report on Electric Taxis

“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.

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.

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