Monday, November 22, 2010

Nissan Leafs are Snazzy & Cool For Sure... But How Can They Perform Well As Taxicabs? Let's Find Out.

All new 2011 Nissan Leaf at SF International Auto Show Moscone Center.  Photo by John Han
By John Han, (photos by John Han).

On Sunday, November 21st, I headed down to the Moscone Center for a quick look at the much hyped about Nissan Leaf all electric vehicle.  It will continue to be on display until Sunday, November 28th, at the San Francisco International Auto Show 2010. 

The Leaf is Nissan’s new 100 percent electric vehicle that produces zero green house gas emissions.  No tailpipe, no exhaust… a good start for families around the world to move away from big oil and fossil fuels.

What’s even cooler is San Francisco has got some federal grant money to purchase for free, 25 of the Leafs and use them as taxis (read full text of grant application).  So, it may be safe to say that the Leafs are coming to town, and they may be coming down the chimney like Santa Claus, servicing our public as early as next year.

Off the bat, I’d say San Franciscans, generally speaking, would love the idea of all electric taxis.  So would I… who wouldn’t?  Although, one passenger told me during a trip to the airport, that she would not want to take a taxi if the car was electric, or even own one for herself at this point.  That’s because of range anxiety.  The Leaf can only go about 100 miles on a full battery. 

After all, imagine if you’ve worked all day, it’s nighttime, you’re almost home, but then the car runs out of juice and you're stuck on the side of the road.  To make matters worse, what if you’re stuck and it’s raining? 

What if you’re a taxi driver stuck on the side of the road, it’s dark out and raining, and you have a passenger that needs to get to the airport and may miss their flight?  What if someone asks to be taken to Novato or Sacramento? 

Additionally, I learned at the auto show that the Leaf does not come equipped with an emergency spare tire.  That is to maximize its distance range, as an added tire increases the car’s overall weight.  Instead, Nissan offers a roadside assistance program based on the assumption that flat tires seldom occur and that people seldom want to change tires by themselves.  

That is not the case with taxis.  And that may come into question as to whether the Leafs would meet the City’s own safety standard, as I assume all taxis by regulation, must be equipped with emergency spare tires and jacks.   

Nissan is marketing the vehicle to families as a second car, specifically, as a commuter car.  The marketing niche is that the average American commuter drives less than 100 miles a day.  So a family could have an electric car for commuting and errands, and another car for longer trips.  And that is how Nissan says the vehicles will best be able to work for now. 

The challenge for San Francisco is that Nissan Leafs are not battery changeable.  That means they will have to plug into charging stations that at best, will recharge batteries in about 30 minutes, and at worst could take as long as 20 hours.

Charging nozzle plugs into the front.
Charging nozzle.
Charging nozzle.

A display of a home style charging station.
That is unlike Better Place’s Bay Area electric taxi program, which is exploring other types of EVs… ones that would have changeable batteries.  Changeable battery EVs could pull into switch stations that are said to be similar to, say, a carwash, and can robotically switch out the batteries within minutes.  This is still compromising as a taxicab, but it is feasible. 

How will San Francisco overcome the hurdles?  We must wait and see.  

The challenge could be whether the City finds money to obtain what are called quick charge stations.  These stations are 480 Volt commercial grade stations that would charge the batteries to 80% of their capacity in about 30 minutes.  These stations would seem a must in order to make the Nissan Leaf a feasible taxi program.

If the City because of lack of funds could not obtain quick charge stations, the batteries would need to be charged by 240 Volt garage style chargers that Nissan is promoting to install as home stations.  This is what Nissan is mainly encouraging and pushing for its buyers to purchase, at least for now since commercial grade public stations to date, are not adequately abundant.

The 240 Volt stations are estimated to cost a homeowner about $2000.00 to install, plus tax and licensing fees, and could fully charge the batteries to 100% in about 8 hours. This would be the second best thing - that the City, or possibly a cab company, provides these 240 Volt charging stations.  However, a 240 Volt station is complicated. 

The main reason is because the Nissan Leaf will likely average around 62 or so miles of distance per charge as a taxicab.  That’s because the top-light, GPS computer, CB radio, meter, FM stereo, aggressive driving, hills, etc., will draw more power from the battery, causing it to drain faster.  Therefore, the 240 Volt system could likely offer taxicabs little more than an average of 62 miles to every 8 hours worth of charging.

Considering that taxis cover approximately 15-20 miles of distance per hour, this gives about 3-4 hours of taxi driving time for every 8 hours worth of charging.  In my experience, that's just about enough time to make an average gate and gas expense, but not much more.  It would seem impossible for taxi drivers to earn any meaningful income in that amount of time, without the City or other persons having to subsidize most, if not all of the operating costs.  

Finally, a third, "trickle charge" system would have to charge the battery using a household standard 120 Volt charging installation, and would take about 20 hours to reach 100% charge, according to Nissan.  That would give a taxi driver about 3-4 hours of taxi driving for every 20 hours of charging time. 

There is no doubt that other than range, the car is quick and can handle the road as well as any gas powered vehicle. 

It’s got a roomy rear seat and decent cargo space… more room than a Prius… a comfortable driver’s seat, and it looks fine.  I didn’t stick around to test drive the car, but car reviews so far say this car moves.

Model displays where the lithium ion battery is located.


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