New York is searching for a replacement for its iconic big yellow taxi. Finding a replacement is no easy task – especially if awarding the contract means snubbing the beleaguered US motor industry.
There can be few more iconic vehicles than the venerable yellow New York taxi cab. From the dawn of the 20th century when Harry N Allen imported a fleet of 65 vehicles from France, the New York taxi has been part of the city's culture.
It was not until the late 1960s when, in a move to decrease the confusion between legal and illegal cabs, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) mandated that all official cabs be yellow. Since then, though, it has become synonymous with New York the world over.
The most common taxi plying its trade on the city's streets is the Ford Crown Victoria, also a favourite of the New York Police department, but there are a total of 16 models that comprise the current taxi fleet, from nine manufacturers. None of the vehicles currently approved as taxis were originally designed for the role; they all needed modifications by third party garages to conform to TLC's taxi specifications.
With models becoming outdated and no clear direction for future purchasing, New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg stepped in to kick off the 'Taxi of Tomorrow' programme. Its stated aim was to upgrade the existing fleet to better meet the needs of all stakeholders.
'The yellow taxi-cab is clearly the face of New York City,' Matt Daus, former Commissioner and Chairman TLC, said at the project launch last year. 'It's up there with the Brooklyn Bridge. It's up there with the Guggenheim, the Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium. People know it all through the world.
'Most people in New York City don't own a car. Most people use the New York City transportation system. Some people suggest the yellow taxi cab is part of the public transportation system, others say that it isn't, but clearly they are part of our public transportation system.
'There are 240 million taxi passengers every single year. That is over 500,000 rides a day and $2.8bn spent on taxi fares annually. That is pretty much equal to the fare collection for all of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is astonishing about how interconnected they really should be and they really are into the transportation network within the City.
'We needed a new taxi. That taxi needs to be designed for owners; it needs to be designed for drivers, for passengers, for New Yorkers, and for all the city's visitors. That's our goal, and that's what this project is intending to find. But it has to be all things; it needs to be safe, it needs to be comfortable to the driver and the passengers, it needs to be affordable.'
Replacing an icon
How, then, do you go about replacing an icon? 'As with other attributes, the new taxi-cab's ability to inspire the loyalty that other classic NYC taxi-cabs of the past have, are assigned points in the evaluation process of each proposal,' David Yassky, TLC Commissioner, says.
'In other words, the more iconic potential the design shows, the better their score in that particular area of judging.'
The answer, according to TLC, is one single vehicle. In February 2008 the TLC issued a Request for Information (RFI) and that was followed 18 months later by a more formal Request for Proposals (RFP).
That generated seven initial proposals but, after reviewing the submissions, that has been reduced to the final three contenders that were announced by Mayor Bloomberg in New York just before the end of last year: one from Europe, the Karsan Otomotiv V-1; one from Japan, Nissan NV200; and one from the United States, Ford Transit Connect. The winner is scheduled to be announced early next year, after a lengthy public consultation and should hit the streets of the five boroughs in 2014.
The winning entrant will be the first ever taxi specifically designed for New York and will be the taxi of choice for ten years – which should amount to 25,000 vehicles over the life of the contract.
'The yellow cab is one of the most iconic symbols of New York City,' Mayor Bloomberg explains. 'Taxis have been an important part of our mass transit network for more than a century and we are going to create a new taxi for our city that is safer, greener and more comfortable than the ones we have today.
'While the city has long set the standards for our taxis - including working to make our vehicles more fuel efficient - it has never before worked with the auto industry to design one taxi-cab specifically for New York City, until now.'
Prerequisites for a modern taxi
Aside from meeting the highest safety standards and economic considerations, key technology areas were lower emissions, improved fuel economy, smaller physical footprint but with more interior room and finally they were seeking innovative ideas for the driver's safety partition.
'The actual vehicles are going to be bought by individual vehicle owners. Some of them are quite large and will buy many vehicles,' David Klahr, chief of staff to the former commissioner at TLC says. 'Some of them are small 'mom and pop shops' they buy one car or two cars.
'We don't buy cars. We don't sell or distribute cars to our licensees, and we don't own or operate the taxis ourselves. We are a pure regulator. We tell people 'You are allowed to buy this car to the exclusion of all other cars', that is it.
'We expect that vehicles when they get to the dealerships will be delivered fully outfitted for use as a taxi-cab. That means they'll have everything you need to be a taxi pre-installed. [It needs to have] a partition, it needs to be yellow, it needs to have meters installed, all the required technological content and so forth.'
Exact details of the three selected entrants are shrouded in secrecy – each company referring requests for information back to TLC who prefer to let the images do the talking. But some small nuggets of information can be gleaned. Of the three entrants, two are based on existing van designs – Ford and Nissan – which rather puts paid to TLC's claim that it will be a custom built taxi.
The only finalist that has truly been designed primarily for a taxi is the Turkish-built Otomotiv V-1. The glass-roofed V1 features a plexi-glass roof that will allow customers to view the city's skyline, as well as being the only vehicle that allows wheelchair access. The one drawback must clearly be that it is European-manufactured. With high unemployment in the US, and with automotive industry still reeling from the financial crisis, it appears inconceivable that New York will award the contract to European maker Karsan – although Yassky is adamant that being built in the US is a not a condition of the tender.
That would appear to leave another great American icon, Ford, in prime position, but its entrant falls down on two criteria. First, it is the most uninspiring of the three, being based on the venerable Ford Transit. Second, the vehicle is also being manufactured in Turkey, although there are strong suggestions that in the future it may be built at a US plant.
That leaves Japanese manufacturer Nissan, whose design will probably win points with the fare-paying public: It has the most leg-room of any of the options. It also offers a sliding cargo pod that deploys using hydraulic rams. It would be built in the US at one of the company's facilities at either Canton, Mississippi or Smyrna, Tennessee.
Only Karsan offers an alternative fuel version of the vehicle, with a choice of petrol, compressed natural gas, hybrid or electric – although both Ford and Nissan say they are developing electric versions.
'The TLC encourages the testing of any and all available fuel sources for use in taxi-cabs,' Yassky says. 'In fact, several years ago, the TLC did pilot test an all-electric vehicle for use as a taxi-cab. While the test of this particular prototype was unfortunately unsuccessful due to its inability to operate at certain temperatures, it does illustrate our eagerness to try new things.'
But the project is not just about customers. Yassky is clear that equal attention has been paid to the needs of drivers and operators. 'We've been very vocal in that the 'Taxi of Tomorrow' project is as much about the drivers of taxicabs as it about the passengers, and therefore the partition is a crucial component of whatever the final design will be in terms of its protective aspect as well as its convenient, and comfortable, operation.'
But at the end of the day the success of the project will largely be down to how the fare-paying passengers of New York take to the new vehicle and on that score Yassky has some positive news.
'By all appearances, quite positively,' he says of public opinion. 'Some time ago, the TLC launched a website devoted to the Taxi of Tomorrow project, soliciting the public's feedback on their taxi use, and the amenities that they would most like to see in a newly-designed taxicab. I am pleased to report that we received over 22,000 completed surveys in a few short weeks.'
By the turn of the next decade there is likely to be almost 15,000 of the new taxis in operation, and the Ford Crown Victoria likely a thing of the past. By the start of next year we will know which contender has been awarded the contract to become New York's iconic cab.