The taxis are not entirely yellow. Their drivers are allowed to refuse certain fares. Even the smell is different, with no oil-rich odor greeting riders at the door.
Months before the city’s Taxi of Tomorrow is scheduled to reach the road, officials have already turned their attention to the type of vehicle that might replace it.
This week, the city will introduce six fully electric taxis into the fleet as part of a pilot program intended primarily to answer a single question: Can yellow-taxi drivers, conditioned to squeeze every fare-generating second out of their shift, find the time to plug in their vehicle while on the job?
“It’s to figure out how a taxi driver can integrate 60 to 90 minutes of charging into a day,” David S. Yassky, the city’s taxi commissioner, said in a telephone interview. “Frankly, just as important, it’s to show other taxi drivers that it can be done.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has set a goal of having one-third of the city’s taxis electric by 2020. In a statement, he stressed “looking ahead to the taxi of the day after tomorrow,” even though the city’s move to a nearly uniform fleet of Nissan NV200s has yet to start.
Drivers of the pilot’s vehicles, which will be silver and yellow Nissan Leafs, volunteered to participate. They have been afforded certain privileges: Mr. Yassky said cabbies in electric vehicles would be permitted to turn down passengers based on their destinations, to quell any driver concerns about losing a charge in the midst of a trip. “They’re pioneers,” Mr. Yassky said. “We want to give them the leeway.”
Some cabbies have expressed doubts about the viability of an electric taxi, arguing that any charging break would undercut earnings. “You can’t go charge in the middle of your shift,” Fahd Khan, 22, said through a rolled-down cab window in Murray Hill. He will agree to drive an electric vehicle, he said, only if the daily rental rate for his taxi is reduced to compensate him for the charging time.
Officials said charging stations were being installed on the Lower East Side, on the Far West Side and near Union Square. Some drivers have charging stations at their homes, allowing them to charge between shifts.
But Mr. Yassky said all drivers would most likely need to plug their cars in during their shifts. He estimated that 30 minutes of charging allowed a cabby roughly 80 miles of driving in the city. Some drivers said they traveled 100 miles on a typical day.
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said that though the prospect of electric taxis sounded “so impractical,” any attempt to curb gasoline costs for drivers was worth exploring — particularly since the city’s Taxi of Tomorrow is not as fuel-efficient as many stakeholders had hoped. A lawsuit has argued that the Taxi of Tomorrow plan violates the city’s administrative code, which, the plaintiffs say, requires that taxi operators have access to a hybrid option.
Given the traditional taxicab’s reputation as a gas-guzzling scourge of air quality, Ms. Desai said, an electric taxi could also carry wider implications. “It would change the public consciousness about fuel efficiency,” she said.
In 2011, Nissan secured a 10-year contract, worth an estimated $1 billion, to be the sole provider of nearly all of the city’s roughly 13,000 taxis. While the Nissan Leaf is unlikely ever to be used widely in the fleet, Mr. Yassky said, an electric version of the more spacious NV200 is expected to be available before the contract expires.
One driver, Yahyia Gassem, 43, said he looked forward to that day, in part because the charging requirement would force him to take a break every shift. “You take a break sometimes longer than that,” he said of the 30 or 40 minutes for charging, adding, “It’s for the environment.”
Another cabby, Haseeb Khan, predicted that electric taxis would thrive if charging stations were placed in areas with “one or two restaurants and washrooms,” allowing drivers to make efficient use of their respite. “For taxi drivers, washroom is the biggest problem,” Mr. Khan said. “We go to Starbucks.”