Taxi of Tomorrow to Force Hybrids Off the Streets of New York? Maybe Not.

The iconic New York taxi is changing. Again. Despite a huge drive to introduce more environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles over the past decade, the decision by Mayor Bloomberg to award an exclusive contract for new taxis to Nissan and its NV200 passenger van means that 2013 could mark the beginning of the end for hybrids on the streets of Manhattan. Or will it?

Famous throughout the world, the 13,000 yellow cabs that operate in New York City’s five boroughs have been on Mayor Bloomberg’s radar since he published his PlanNYC in 2007, a wide-ranging strategy to prepare New York for population growth while also reducing the city’s environmental impact. Already gone were the days when every cab was a gas-guzzling Ford Crown Victoria as he initially set about converting the whole fleet to hybrid vehicles within five years.

However, taxi drivers and owners are a powerful force in New York and the path to a hybrid-only city was not smooth, with many drivers complaining that the vehicles, including the Nissan Altima, were just not suitable for the city despite their better fuel efficiency. Some makers, including Toyota, even expressed misgivings about their own vehicles being used as 24-hour-a-day taxis as they were not designed to be used commercially in that manner.

Six years on from Bloomberg’s announcement of hybrids for all, around half of New York’s taxis are now hybrid vehicles. However, as of this year, any cab that is replaced after its typical three to five-year lifespan, will be replaced by the Nissan NV200 van. This was chosen by the authorities ahead of the Karsan V-1 and the Ford Connect Transit in the city’s much-publicised “Taxi of Tomorrow” competition.

While this may seem like a retrograde step, it may not be that straightforward. Nissan is keen to position itself as the world’s premier maker of electronic cars so the door is still open for the NV200 to become a hybrid and perhaps eventually an electric vehicle in the future.

The company’s 2013 range shows a strong move towards fuel efficiency and, for example, the new Nissan Altima in the UAE and US is being pushed heavily for its environmental credentials. The company also claims another 14 hybrids and electric cars are already on their way to helping them meet targets, evidence that a hybrid NV200 may not be too far off. Nissan Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga recently told the press: “Thanks to environmentally friendly technology and new products, we are completely in line with our targets for the reduction of CO2 in the usage of vehicles.”

With Bloomberg handing Nissan 10 years of exclusivity in supplying New York’s cab drivers with the NV200 and all taxis having to be replaced within five years, starting this year, there is every chance that the Japanese giant will be in a position to offer an NV200 hybrid within the lifespan of its contract with the city and that the drop in the number of hybrid taxis on New York’s streets may well be a temporary one.

But what of hybrid taxis elsewhere? While many cities have embarked on relatively modest programs to phase in hybrid vehicles, San Francisco is the most advanced so far with around 50 per cent of its taxis now hybrids and several more running on alternative fuels. One reason for the take-off of hybrids in the Californian city is that, unlike in New York, most taxi owners in San Francisco are also the drivers so they personally see the fuel savings when filling up, as opposed to the owners in New York who generally have someone else driving their cab.

In New York, though, rumours of the death of the hybrid may have been exaggerated. We will all have to wait and see how the Taxi of Tomorrow beds in and whether New York will one day become a home of the hybrid once again.