Osaka's great EV taxi experiment does a slow burnout
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.”
“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.”