Friday, December 29, 2006

Rajput, hybrid car pioneer

Even though Rajput Mumhaz-Ahmed and I grew up worlds apart – he’s from Southern Pakistan and I’m from the Southeastern United States – we’re both car guys. While stopped at the first traffic light on our way from Midtown Manhattan to LaGuardia in his taxi, he looked at me through the rearview mirror and noted, “Can you hear how quiet my car is? It’s a hybrid. The engine is off right now.” The truth is, I hadn’t noticed. You see, Rajput drives a 2007 Toyota Camry outfitted for taxi service in New York City. Since my wife has a very quiet 2004 Toyota Avalon, I’d come to expect silence in a full-sized Toyota.

“See? Nothing.” he said, pointing at a tiny LCD display on his dashboard just beneath the speedometer. It showed a small battery-shaped icon with a thin line connecting a gear-shaped icon on the opposite side. As he took off from the light, I watched as the gear-shaped icon started to rotate, and the thin connecting line was replaced by a fat pulsating one indicating that energy was flowing. After a few minutes we were on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway where the gasoline engine icon appeared for the first time – also connected to the drive icon by a wide pulsating line. According to Rajput, the gasoline engine direct drive is only necessary when driving uphill or traveling above 35 mph. The rest of the time, it simply charges the battery as necessary.

Rajput put quite a bit of thought into this car and is quite proud of it. Nothing escaped him as he described the performance, care and maintenance of the vehicle. “I drive more than 100 miles per day. I only need $10 for gas,” he bragged, “My old car needed $35 per day.” I started doing the math – Rajput is saving over $5,000 per year in gasoline! He went on to say how he was derided by other cabbies for buying the Toyota since it is a more-expensive four-cylinder car rather than the cheaper V-8 Ford Crown Victoria favored by the other taxi operators. “I did the research – the Toyota has more power since the gasoline engine and electric motor work together.” I asked him about maintenance. “This car has a 7-year warranty, except the batteries. They are warranted for 8 years or 100,000 miles.” That blew me away. I expected the batteries to have a much shorter warranty than the car itself. Rajput has done the math; he is sure of his choice. I agree with him 100%.

New York City has encouraged the use of hybrid vehicles for ground transport, going so far as to commission a special badge designation so that patrons can easily recognize and choose the hybrid cabs. The reasoning is simple: Taxis in New York idle at stop lights, in traffic and at entry/exit points more than they actually drive. All of those avoided emissions really add up. It’s good for New York and good for the people of New York.

I’ve been critical of the hybrid electric/gasoline car in the past. It is a complex solution with marginal benefit for most American drivers. However, for Rajput and the legions of New York City taxi drivers, the advantages are obvious. Why does it work for him and not for me? Well the answer is really very simple: his driving habits are completely different than mine are. I drive in very little stop-and-go traffic, while he drives almost exclusively in one of the busiest cities on the planet. He drives 12-hour-shifts each day; I am in the car less than an hour most days. Finally, gasoline in his city costs 30% more than gasoline in my area. All of this means that the hybrid is a home run for those in Gotham, but a strike out in the provinces. One size does NOT fit all.

As I exited the cab, Rajput showed me the one drawback that he’s found – the trunk is smaller that the average Crown Vic because the rear-mounted batteries encroach on storage space. “But in a month or two, I will get my GPS system and I will be able to accept credit cards using a wireless internet system. No more meter. The GPS will chart the route and add up the fare. All I have to do is swipe the card and the billing is automatic.” Rajput knows that this will be a HUGE competitive advantage for him vs. the lower-technology cabs. “The car even has Bluetooth for wireless connection for my phone,” he says, giving an impromptu demonstration. “I can offer a speakerphone call as a service to my customers for an additional fee if I choose!” Now there’s an entrepreneurial thought!

So, hybrid power works for some drivers, and not for others. What would tip the scales for me and others like me?

As a huge fan of Saab, I’m begging, pleading with the company to release the BioPower plug-in version for the US market ASAP. I will be among the first to buy one if the price is as reasonable as Rajput’s cab. Why does the Saab make the difference? I live in Tennessee where electricity is very inexpensive – our power is second-lowest of any region in the US (the Pacific Northwest is lowest). If I could use only electricity for most of my driving and needed gasoline power only for lengthy trips (greater than, say, 30 miles round-trip), I would buy gasoline only once per month or so! That means cleaner air* and much, much lower fuel costs! Saab, I’ve seen the light! Send BioPower plug-in, post haste!

* The Tennessee Valley Authority plants are well within the EPA guidelines for emissions.


Post a Comment

<< Home