Nissan LEAF Taxis: Ready for the Mean Streets of New York?

By · May 05, 2011

Nissan NV200 Taxi Sketch

I think I understand why the Mexico-built Nissan NV200 won the New York City taxi wars. It may not look like much, but it’s totally practical, with lots of room for four passengers and their luggage as well as a cool roof panel to let tourists look at the skyscrapers. I like the “low-annoyance” horn, because there’s enough aural assault in New York as it is. So what if they’re minivans? What’s wrong with minivans? Those of us who revolve around the New York metro area will learn to love them, just like we’ve taken in the ubiquitous Ford Escape, Toyota Prius and Nissan Altima hybrids that flood the taxi stands.

But here’s a curve ball: As part of the program, Nissan is also sponsoring a pilot program “to study the use of zero-emission, electric vehicles as taxis.” That means that up to six Nissan LEAFs, and their charging stations, will hit the mean streets with meters running next year (a year before the NV200s). It’s a practical demonstration, because the NV200 itself could get a battery drivetrain down the road—the LEAF system would probably slot right into it.

As we all know, the LEAF has 100-mile range, which is diminished somewhat in cold weather. And it gets mighty cold in New York. A major advantage for EVs in taxi service is that they’ll operate out of a central garage that could be outfitted with 480-volt DC fast charging to get the cabs back on the road in 30 minutes. That’s important, because the average New York cabbie drives 100 miles a night.

Nissan NV200 Taxi

Nissan isn’t saying more than the press release, but it’s intriguing. The LEAF doesn’t have switchable batteries (though its cousin the Renault Fluence Z.E., already on the road in a Denmark Better Place program, does). That would be one way to keep the cars on the road continuously, with only a five-minute pit stop required.

This is going to be tough on the high-tech LEAFs, because the city’s taxis cover 70,000 miles in a typical year, and some of the old campaigners (Ford Victorias and Checkers) clocked well over a million miles before the end came. New York taxis get their doors slammed 60 to 70 times a day; is the LEAF up for that rough treatment?

For a clue on that question, we can look at the record of the hybrids on the same city streets. There are 4,300 hybrid taxis in a fleet of approximately 13,000, a third of the fleet. Only San Francisco has more green taxis, because with hybrids (48 percent of the fleet) and natural gas cars (nine percent) it has retired well over half of its gas guzzlers.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been dealt a number of setbacks in his quest to hybridize the taxi fleet, most recently with the Supreme Court refusing to hear an appeal of lower court rulings that said, in effect, that the city was trying to create its own emission standards.

New York’s taxi fleet owners don’t like the hybrids because they cost more to buy, but the taxi drivers (who pay for the gas!) are just fine with them. And it’s not just because they’ve proven extremely reliable. Eliot Saffir, who became the first New York cabbie to drive a hybrid in 2005, told the Natural Resources Defense Council that his Prius’ 50 mpg in the city (the only way he drives it, after all) contrasts sharply with the 18 mpg he got in his old Crown Vic. He saves up to $30 a day in gas, and in almost six years hasn’t made a repair beyond routine maintenance. “It’s just unbelievable the money I’m saving on this car,” he said.

LEAF Taxi

The LEAF, of course, doesn’t use any gas at all, and costs about three cents a mile to operate. I don’t know of any that are in use as taxis now, but at least four of them are in some kind of government-run car sharing program run by Kanagawa Prefecture Government in Japan. Check out the photo—it looks ready to pick up fares, doesn’t it?

The back seat is probably a bit snug for taxi use, but it’s probably doable. I had a trial run myself, because as part of the green car CO2 E Drive on Earth Day, I drove a LEAF all over Manhattan with Nissan’s Steve Oldham. In terms of drivability, it will definitely make cabbies happy. The car is, of course, quiet, but it’s also zippy and handles well. I found it easy to dart into holes in the traffic.

The taxi experiment will be interesting because, as the song goes, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. Note to would-be electric cabbies: The Bronx is up and the Battery down.

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