A Nissan compact van, soon to morph into its assignment as New York City’s official “Taxi of Tomorrow,” will shortly be unveiled in its new role at the 2012 New York International Auto Show in April. Although it has carried the simple NV200 designation in the Nissan lineup, a much-modified version next year will sport an even brighter hue of the traditional NYC taxi’s yellow paint treatment. It then will be the only permitted replacement for the current range of approved vehicles, most of which are the Ford Crown Victoria, production of which has been discontinued.
In 2009 the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the industry, issued a call for proposals for a new taxi. A year ago it picked the NV200 as the lowest in initial price and estimated annual maintenance and because it was designed for conversion to an all-electric vehicle promised for a 2017 introduction. The NV200 agreement with NYC is for 10 years, starting in October 2013, when the first models go on sale. The vehicle is made at a Nissan plant in Mexico.
The focus on lowest overall cost assessment is certain to draw snickers. Unlike London, which places no limit on the number of taxis that can be “hailed” by a customer from curbside, New York City has issued only 13,237 taxi licenses, called medallions, of which 40% are individual licenses, the balance for fleets. That limit notwithstanding, the NYC taxi fleet still is the largest in the U.S. Because the medallion constitutes a franchise, the price has risen gradually from the city-levied $10 fee of 1937 to a free market price that has reached a million dollars for a fleet medallion, about $700,000 for an individual. Non-medallion liveries also are licensed but legally must respond only to phone calls and reservations.
The cost of the medallion is an asset that is financed. And the financing cost means that the taxis typically are operated 24 hours in two 12-hour shifts over 5-6 days. They carry about 236 million passengers a year (1.4 passengers per trip), traveling an average of about 2.7 mi (4.3 km) per trip, and 70,000 mi (112,000 km) per year. The entire fleet logs an annual total of over 500 million passenger miles (800 million passenger kilometers) and nearly a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) when no-fare cruising is added in. Durability is a priority and now so is fuel economy. The rear-wheel-drive Crown Victoria with the 4.6-L V8 was rated at 19 mpg U.S. EPA combined (16 mpg city/24 mpg highway). The transverse front-drive NV200 will be powered by a 2.0-L four with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), and Nissan’s target is 26 mpg combined, a 37% improvement.
NYC gasoline prices are 15-25% higher than the surrounding suburbs, which adds to the financial pressure on taxi operators. So in response over recent years, the Taxi and Limousine Commission had been approving alternatives to the Crown Victoria, such as Fusion and Escape (including hybrid versions); Toyota Camry and Prius; and such diesels as in Mercedes-Benz M-Class and E-Class; Volkswagen Jetta, Golf, and Touareg; and Audi Q7. Others on the approved list were Toyota Highlander and a wheelchair-accessible Sienna, Nissan Altima, Lincoln MKZ, Hyundai Sonata, and the MV-1, a wheelchair-accessible model designed by Vehicle Production Group and assembled by AM General. However, once the NV200 taxi becomes available, the approved list drops to just that one.
The NV200 taxi holds just four passengers—three across the rear seat, one next to the driver. Because the NV200 is a front-wheel-drive van, the taxi floor is flat, improving center rear seat passenger comfort. The cargo area holds at least four large suitcases, which is more than the Crown Victoria can. Yet the NV200 is only 186.2 in (4729 mm) overall vs. 212.0 in (5385 mm) for the Crown Victoria.
Complete specifications haven’t yet been released, but NYC says the NV200 will have more knee room than any NYC taxi ever, including the legendary Checkers that were favorites in the taxi market in the late 1930s through World War II. The last one—a 1978 model retired in 1996—had logged 1 million mi (1.6 million km) on three Chevrolet inline six-cylinder engines. Running on New York City’s potholed streets, Checkers had a reputation for durability that helped them maintain sales despite a price tag that approached Buick. Dedicated taxis of that era, like the Checker, also had two fold-up rear-facing jump seats in back, which made them popular choices to hail for up to six people. Today, safety and rear space concerns remove jump seats from the option take list.
Safety, durability, comfort features
The NV200 is the first taxi to be crash-tested with full taxi gear, including the security partition between driver and rear seat passengers. There are airbags for all passengers, and they are designed to work with the partition.
Nissan also recognizes the durability issue. Passengers slide in and out, many perhaps rubbing metal objects against the seats. The upholstery chosen is an advanced heavy-duty vinyl that breathes and is easy to clean, according to Joe Castelli, Nissan Vice President for Fleet and Commercial Vehicles. The material is anti-microbial, he said, and has an estimated protective life of over five years.
The life of the suspension also must be established on NYC streets. The NV200 has a rear leaf spring suspension, but the front end uses a car-like MacPherson strut with a sway bar. The one engineered for the taxi was subject to punishment at Nissan’s Arizona proving grounds on a section of potholed road originally created to assess complaints on ride comfort with Nissan cars driven in the city. The NV200 also has been undergoing a multivehicle test with a NYC taxi fleet.
Many aspects of the NV200 taxi reflect other needs for NYC operation. The horn is tuned to be minimally annoying, as NYC has a law that can assess a $350 fine for a taxi that blows its horn in other than an emergency. To provide a visual aid, exterior lights will flash simultaneously. The sliding rear doors of the NV200 also make it more convenient for passengers to exit into the street, as may be necessary in Manhattan driving conditions where swing-out doors often are involved in accidents with cars and cyclists. Lights also go on when a rear door opens as a warning to cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.
The rear of the cabin will have passenger-controlled climate control, and to maintain a healthy cabin, the vehicle HVAC is equipped with a premium air filter.
There is a large glass roof panel for skyscraper sightseeing, plus reading lights, and 12-V and USB ports for the passenger who needs a quick charge for his/her smartphone or other electronics as the taxi crawls through stop-and-go traffic. Rear lighting is designed to help passengers locate small items, which may reduce the number of legendary stories of expensive belongings left in NYC taxis.
The long workday led to special attention paid to the driver’s seat. It’s six-way adjustable, including lumbar and recline for the driver who needs a short rest break. The recline feature was fitted in so it doesn’t interfere with the security partition.
Unlike London taxi drivers, who are tested for their knowledge of street locations, the NYC driver may be a recent immigrant with a chauffer’s license and marginal familiarity of the city. So onboard navigation will be standard.
The new taxi has rear access entry steps and grab handles for the physically challenged. The vehicle also may be equipped with the capability to accept wheelchairs. The supplier is Braun Corp., whose BraunAbility line is used by other automotive companies.
The interior design and feature content was a collaboration with Cooper-Hewitt, the NYC-based design museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Design Trust for Public Space, a non-profit organization, and Smart Design, a consulting firm.
Although the EV version of the NV200 is five years off, Nissan will be testing its viability by lending six Leafs to designated fleets. Although most taxis ply the streets of Manhattan, a customer can ask to be taken to locations that could be a problem for EV range. Conveniently located charging stations would be needed for such trips as to JFK Airport, which could be about 25 mi (40 km) one way from a mid-Manhattan pickup point, or even further to some suburban locations.
In the early days of motorized transportation, the original NYC taxis were primarily electrics, but financial and legal troubles put the largest fleet out of business in the early 1900s. The first replacements were horse-drawn carriages.