New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (T&LC) approved new rules Thursday that make it likely that the city’s endlessly controversial “Taxi of Tomorrow” will be responding to the upraised arms of residents as early as October.

I’ve never seen so much litigation over one vehicle. But what do you expect, it’s New York!

Nissan’s NV200 won a close-fought competition for a near-exclusive on providing cabs to New York. Not everyone was happy, because the NV200 doesn’t come in a hybrid version (one is coming in a year or two), and the city’s rules require that option. That’s why, in May, a State Supreme Court judge blocked the “Taxi of Tomorrow” plan. But the T&LC, an ardent supporter of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s taxi initiative, has done an end run around the judge’s ruling.

According to Alan Fromberg, a spokesman for the T&LC, “The new rules will allow operators to choose from among several models of hybrid vehicle until such time as the Nissan hybrid NV200 is available. As long as there’s a viable alternative option, which today’s rule package provides, we’re good!”

I’ve ridden in the Taxi of Tomorrow, and the spacious back seat is a nice place to be. But there are some challenges: No current hybrid version, no ready-for-production wheelchair access, and no crash testing yet. Most of that is promised.

Right now, the city’s streets swarm with hybrids, including the Toyota Prius, Highlander and Camry, Ford Escape, Nissan Altima and more. There are even four Nissan Leaf electric taxis in a pilot program. The NV200 could become a battery electric, and Nissan says the Leaf pilot will give the company insight as to whether that version will fly.

The irony here is that the hybrid-friendly mayor will, at least temporarily, be taking hybrid taxis off the streets. A major malcontent is Ethan Gerber, executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association. “They’re taking 6,000 hybrids off the road for a vehicle that’s not in production yet, that might have a hybrid option down the road,” he said.

According to Gerber, the current hybrid taxis will be replaced as they “age out.” Taxis have only a three-year lifespan on the city’s mean streets, so a third of the fleet will be replaced this year, and another third next year. Less than half the taxis (42 percent) are driver owned; the rest are in fleets and leased to drivers.

Gerber says that fleet owners, drivers and consumers all want to keep the current hybrids on the road. He doesn’t object to the NV200 as one of a range of vehicles offered to taxi drivers and fleet owners, “But to lock in one vehicle for 10 years, when that vehicle hasn’t had any actual road experience, just seems crazy,” he said.

In its ruling June 20, the T&LC approved the use of the Toyota Prius V as an alternative hybrid taxi, to go along with two existing choices—the Lexus 450h and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It seems a bit strange that they’re all from the same manufacturer, but if you’re going to add one new model, the Prius V—which has an extra-spacious rear seat—is an excellent choice. The Lexus 450h is a nice car but quite pricey for fleets to buy, starting at $46,310. The Prius V, which also gets much better fuel economy (44/40 mpg) starts at $26,650.

There’s an existing lawsuit against the Taxi of Tomorrow because it lacks wheelchair accessibility, and New York’s rules say that all taxi vans must have that accessibility. Disability advocates filed a federal lawsuit against the NV200 because it’s currently not accessible, though Nissan has shown a version friendly to wheelchairs (that's it below). The city has actually denied that the NV200 is a van, though it obviously is, and the “NV” stands for Nissan Van.”

New York has 170,000 people with mobility-related disabilities, and they’re not happy. The company also needs to get around to crash-testing the NV200. I’m sure they will, especially if it’s going into service in, gulp, October. Nissan spokesman Mike Hobson told me that the company needs to push development work full tilt to make that deadline.

I think the NV200 will actually become the Taxi of Tomorrow, and all the current nastiness will be cleared up. The program was somewhat rushed, but it’s got momentum now.


I mentioned that the city is starting a pilot program with Nissan Leaf battery taxis. Mayor Bloomberg was one of the first to get a test ride, and here he is proclaiming it good in this video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The epic fight over New York's Taxi of Tomorrow
taxi of tomorrow issues