TOKYO – "They're really popular with the customers, these EV cabs," said Yoshihiko Takahashi who has been driving taxis in Tokyo for 16 years. "The best part is that they're so quiet. People say they can now talk business in the back seat."
Nihon Kotsu Taxi is taking part in a three-month trial using remodeled electric cars with the world's first battery-exchange system for commercial vehicles. (The cabs are old Nissan Dualis which had their engines and transmissions removed and replaced by motors and batteries).
The system is being promoted by Better Place, a Silicon Valley start-up, which is preparing to launch a large commercial EV infrastructure program in Denmark and Israel by the end of next year.
Instead of recharging the vehicle, which can take up to eight hours using normal household electricity or 30 minutes using a fast-speed charger, the battery exchange station can load up a taxi with a fully charged battery in less than a minute.
"It's faster than pumping gasoline," said Takahashi. Each time he swaps in a new battery, he extends his mileage by another 55 miles. And since the average distance a cab drives daily is roughly 175 miles, he only needs to check into a battery station three times a day.
Takahashi acknowledged that the quick battery exchange enabled the EVs to compete with gasoline taxis. "From a business stand point," Takahashi pointed out. "Its' a real strength…You would be forced to limit your business somewhat if you had to recharge the car which at the very least takes 30 minutes."
The key is to keep track of how much power is left and being able to calculate how much longer he can drive. But that information – from acceleration and speed to battery life – are all monitored on a little iPod positioned next to the steering wheel.
And the same information, along with the GPS location of the vehicle, is also shared and monitored on a computer screen at the battery station in case there's a need to alert the driver that the power supply is diminishing.
As for the customers, they are not just getting a ride, but are also making a contribution to reducing the city's gas emission. According to calculations by Better Place, while taxis make up only 2 percent of total vehicles on the roads in Tokyo, they're responsible for 20 percent of vehicular emissions.
But most importantly, the fare may also be another reason for hailing an EV cab. Japan's Next Generation Vehicle's promotional material claims that the costs of driving an electric car one mile can be as little as a third or even one-seventh the cost of driving a traditional gas powered car – particularly if it's a compact car. The taxi company says they are hoping to pass those savings on to customers by charging lower fares.
The hurdle, however is the EV's price tag, currently priced at around $42,000. Even with government subsidies – which bring the price down to about $34,000 – it will undoubtedly be a heavy investment for taxi companies.
And there is also the concern of availability of electric vehicles.
Take for example, Nissan's new EV Leaf. As of June, the company has received 6,000 domestic pre-orders. Add that to the 14,000 vehicles on a waitlist in the United States and demand has already far surpassed the automaker's global production target of 10,000 vehicles.
In terms of infrastructure, with the current test run, one battery station is set up to service three cabs. But Takahashi says if this system is to take off in earnest, his company alone would probably need at least five stations strategically placed throughout Tokyo, in addition to the 97 charging stations already in the city for emergency recharges. And that presents another cost, since each swap station could cost an estimated $500,000.
Nihon Kotsu Taxi will need to review the data compiled from the trial run to determine the viability of this battery exchange system. But it may be one way of weaning away from our dependency on fossil fuel.
As Takahashi predicts, "If you think about the future, electric cars will definitely become a major mode of transportation."