Osaka's great EV taxi experiment does a slow burnout

TOKYO —

With the grounding of Boeing’s 787s, lithium-ion batteries have been getting a bad press recently.

But battery-related problems have also bubbled over in the EV (electrical vehicle) sector. Weekly Playboy (Feb 25) takes a look at what’s been happening since Osaka’s taxi fleets introduced EVs to great fanfare back in February 2011.

“Fifty Nissan EVs (the Nissan LEAF) were introduced through a cooperative arrangement between 30 taxi firms, Nissan Motor Co and the government,” relates a member of Osaka Prefecture’s New Energy Industries Department. “Each unit was subsidized to the tune of 1 million yen from Osaka prefecture and 780,000 yen from the national government. So the taxi companies were able to procure them at the relatively low price of about 2 million yen.”

The initial reviews from the drivers were favorable.

“It’s not fatiguing to drive them. There’s no vibration or knocks from the engine,” gushed an employee at one taxi firm. “They just glide smoothly. The electric power is far cheaper than outlays for gasoline, and there are few mechanical failures. Eventually we’re certain that EV taxis will become the most common type on the road.”

EV taxi visibility was helped by the assigning of a dedicated taxi stand restricted only to electrical models adjacent to JR Osaka station. Soon after it went into operation, passengers began flocking there in large numbers.

But two years later, the situation has changed. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the promise of electricity as a clean, safe and non-polluting source of power vanished, and with it, so did the EV taxis from Osaka’s streets.

“Business stinks,” grumbles one driver. “Their sales are less than half that of regular cars. There’s no more demand for EV taxis.”

But why?

“Well for one thing, the deterioration of battery performance has been severe,” the driver explains. “When the cars were new, you could drive about 100 kilometers on a full charge; but after two years of use, their maximum range is down to about one half of that. So you have to refuse passengers who request long trips.”

Assuming a gasoline-powered car gets 25 kilometers to a liter of fuel, that gives an EV taxi on full charge gets the same range as just two liters of gasoline.

It seems that once battery deterioration sets in, even the high-speed recharging time takes longer. Whereas only 15 minutes were previously required, now it takes more than twice that time—40 minutes or longer.

“What’s more, there are only eight charging stations in all of Osaka city,” says the driver. “If you consider the time you spend getting to one, you’re probably taking of about one full hour for a single recharge. And since you have recharge the batteries six or seven times a day, you’re spending as much time at the ‘pump’ as you are carrying fares. It’s a money-losing proposition.”

And that’s not the only problem. Look at the interior of such vehicles and you’ll see disposable chemical pocket warmers all over the seat.

“If we use the heater, it consumes even more electric power and battery reserves run down even faster,” the driver complains. “Shortens the range by 20 kilometers right there. So we bundle up and bite the bullet. I use pocket warmers. Some drivers also bring aboard lap blankets.”

So then why not just dump the cars and revert to the old type of cars?

Asked this question, an executive at a taxi firm shakes his head. “To get the subsidy from the government, the deal was that we had to run the EVs for a minimum of three years,” he said. “So we’ve got to stick with them for at least one more year, irrespective of how much business they generate.”

From the looks of things, the third anniversary of the model introduction may very well also mark the complete disappearance of the EV taxis from Osaka’s streets. But the aforementioned driver isn’t waiting for that day to come.

“I’m getting out of this business,” he says. “This is no way to earn a living.”

  • 0

    MiuraAnjin

    "In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the promise of electricity as a clean, safe and non-polluting source of power vanished"

    In the summer of 2011 Tepco's car parks were crammed full of the Mitsubishi iMiEVs that they'd bought for their electricity meter maids to use. Not only would it have been extremely crass to be seen burning electricity while announcing possible blackouts across the city, but it would have taken a very brave TEPCO employee to drive an EV with ZERO EMISSION VEHICLE emblazoned down the sides when everyone was watching the weather, praying that the wind wouldn't blow from the north.

  • 6

    Saulo Akazawa

    25 KM??? Based in what? Those old sedans we see driving around as taxis would be luck to clock 10 km/l. My car runs 2 to 3 in the city and my work prius will go 18 to 20. Since these cars drive mostly in the commercial centers I don't believe these numbers are right.

  • 2

    Virtuoso

    Why am I not surprised...The Nissan Leaf is a passenger car, and almost certainly wasn't designed for the kind of wear and tear that the average taxi must put up with. Anyway, the the auto pundits say fuel cell battery power is the wave of the future, but won't be economically viable until 2020 at the earliest. In the meantime hybrids like the Toyota Prius seem to be the practical choice.

  • 0

    sangetsu03

    Also not mentiond is the fact that these electric cars are charged from electricity coming from gas-powered electricity plants. In America, the charging station for a typical electric car requires a high current outlet and approximately 6 hours charging time for an "optimal" recharge. When you consider that up to 75% of the electricity generated in a power plant dissipates during it's tavel through the power lnes, it turns out that electric cars use more fuel and generate more CO2 than a normal gasoline powered car, provided that the source of the electricity is a gas or coal-fueled plant.

    For the time being, I'll stick with my bicycle.

  • 0

    TravelingSales

    Our tax yen at work!

  • 1

    edojin

    This presents another challenge for scientists: how to perfect an automobile battery that can do what it's supposed to do to power a vehicle over an adequate time span.

    This article is interesting in that it shows electric-powered cars are not all that great. Guess reliable electric-powered cars are still a dream of the future.

  • -3

    Vast Right-Wing Conspirator

    What a surprise. The government tries to dictate to the marketplace how to do business, and screws up. Subsidies for so-called green energy are doomed to failure. Let nature take its course, and the technology will develop naturally.

    Whoever thought of this stupid idea should be fired, but there is little chance of that happening. In the real world, a screw-up like this would get you fired. In the fantasy land of government, probably a transfer to another department.

  • 0

    No Miso

    It's a well known fact that quick charging kills the battery life - so everyone was just a bit too optimistic.

  • -1

    Fadamor

    Let nature take its course, and the technology will develop naturally.

    "Nature" doesn't have a thing to do with it. EV's won't become popular until it's easy to find a place to recharge them, but businesses will not give up conventional parking spots for EV charging stations until the EV's are common enough to warrant the change. Catch 22. SOMEBODY has to take the first step and the risk. Sounds like the Osaka government did a little, but didn't put enough charging stations around the city.

    As for the taxi driver complaining about the reduced charge after two years, apparently someone forgot to tell him that even though the batteries are rechargeable, the batteries DO need to be periodically replaced.

  • 0

    ubikwit

    I would imagine that the battery technology will have improved substantially after three years.

  • 1

    sfjp330

    I would imagine that battery technology in cars will be a complete failure in 5 to 10 years.

  • 2

    Kimokekahuna Hawaii

    You have to start somewhere. I like the idea of Taxis being electric for many reasons... and understand the frustration with poor battery performance and lack of charging stations. The problems surface and then must adapt and overcome problems, there is no going back. Private sector needs to supply free charging stations provided by advertisers. Hybrids are an obvious stepping stone that would reduce emissions. Drivers can not sleep in the taxi with battery on like they do with the gas running. Driving patterns must therefore change.. sleep at home not on the job or create places to recharge while drivers nap. Why dont these cars have solar panels on the roofs that can at least provide some heating in winter and air in summer and when the car is in motion.. it must be easy to have a generator at least keep seat heating/cooling elements. Maybe not enough sun in city with smog and tall buildings. Taxt companies should have more cars and have drivers come in and change out Taxis with full charges. Some Taxis would only be for inner city travel. The all electric EV works best for suburban housewives who only drive a few miles to the train station, school and shopping and the car can recharge slowly throughout the day and over night. It is up to Nissan, Toyota, Honda to get hydrogen or magnetic powered taxis on the road and use urban transportation as a test for many kinds of alternative transportation.

  • 2

    sfjp330

    Kimokekahuna Hawaii Feb. 20, 2013 - 09:00AM JST I like the idea of Taxis being electric for many reasons... and understand the frustration with poor battery performance and lack of charging stations.

    It really doesn't matter if the battery charging station increases. Battery cars are a joke. If each charge takes 2-4 hours on 200V or 8 hours on 100V, it still takes way too long to operate any business. Compare it with putting gas in hybrid cars such as Prius or regular compact cars. You can put gas in 5 minutes and have 10 times longer range then completely charged Nissan Leaf.

  • 0

    nandakandamanda

    Interesting article. The experiment got practical answers, so in that sense it was a useful shakedown both for the authorities and for us Joe Public.

    Whoever drafted the contract was clever though, to lock them into three years and to leave out replacing any batteries.

    (To JT Mods. Tried to give K Hawaii a positive rating but the system refused. I then tried to give one to sfjp330 and he got two instead)

  • 0

    cwhite

    hybrid would have been the way to go for taxis, such is the case for public buses. After 2 years of course the battery life becomes 50% or less, what did they expect. The contract should have included an overhaul of the battery every year. I guess Osaka wasn't ready for this. Yokohama is in better shape for testing these gadgets. The major taxi stands should have been retrofitted with non-contact rechargers so you recharge while waiting. For taxis they probably should have tripled the batteries in the first place. Some drivers are on the job for 36 hours straight.

  • 1

    Vast Right-Wing Conspirator

    Kimo is right. There is a chance for private industry to do something like this program. It would be a clever marketing strategy. The Osaka govt is trying to push things too fast, and reap some political points as a result. Sounds remarkably similar to something that happened in the US. Solyndra, anyone?

    I remember the same thing (well, similar) being done in Okinawa with rental cars. One agency advertised that they had added the Nissan Leaf to their rental fleet, and that customers could request to rent one if they wanted. Also provided a list of charging stations. A great way to introduce their product, and one that did not involve the taxpayer being forced to subsidize it.

  • 1

    No Miso

    @vrwc

    I remember the same thing (well, similar) being done in Okinawa with rental cars. One agency advertised that they had added the Nissan Leaf to their rental fleet, and that customers could request to rent one if they wanted. Also provided a list of charging stations. A great way to introduce their product, and one that did not involve the taxpayer being forced to subsidize it.

    It sounds like a good idea because Okinawa is only just big enough to really test the range of the Leaf IF you drove end to end on the main island. Most people don't, so should be a useful exercise, even using aircon that would drain the battery somewhat.

  • 0

    badsey3

    http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/howtoprolonglithiumbased_batteries

    Maybe for commercial use lithium batteries are not the best. But I would assume in 10 years most people especially in dense areas will have cars/vehicles with extended battery capacity. With the Prius (plug-in) you can go 11 miles on electricity alone -for many that will get you where you want to go without having to pay for fuel. You can actually put a switch in your Prius (Japan/Euro Prius had this) to go all electric mode also.

    http://www.toyota.com/prius-plug-in/#!/panels3 (Prius Plug-in)

    http://www.calcars.org/prius-evbutton-install.pdf (Add $1 switch to Prius to go all-electric mode)

  • 0

    Mark Bradley

    Achilles' heel, the battery. Hopefully, battery technology improves or super capacitors come to fruition.

  • 0

    Davex123

    Using an EV (no backup engine or hybrid) for a taxi application is just stupid. Anyone who is the least bit familiar with EVs could have predicted this outcome. Let's see, take a vehicle that has limited (Nissan claiming "up to" 75 mi or 120 km) that has long refueling times and limited refueling locations and apply it to a commercial vehicle that needs to drive continuously for at least an 8 hour shift and hopefully hand off to a second shift after that. Even with the optimistic, brand-new battery recharge time of 10 minutes, it is inconceivable to have to drive to a charging station and then spend 10 (much less 40) minutes recharging after every couple of fares. Anyone who's ever owned a battery powered device knows that a new battery is WAY better than a year old battery. So, the optimistic "up to" 120 km quickly becomes 60 km or more likely 25-30 km in real world driving (e.g. with heat or a/c) and you quickly are down to a useless vehicle.

    Dumb from the start.

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