Faced with skyrocketing gasoline prices, a Valley taxicab company is looking to hybrid vehicles to ease the squeeze.
Total Transit, which operates Discount Cab, has taken delivery this week of the first 20 of a planned 200 Toyota Prius cars it will add to its fleet of taxis that operate across the Valley.
Chief Executive Craig Hughes expects to save about 800,000 gallons of fuel each year with the fuel-efficient cars, which translates into an annual savings of about $14,000 per vehicle. The new fleet will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming by 8,000 tons a year.
After a lengthy study, Hughes believes the economics of the Prius will pencil out for his taxi company. Although the initial cost is higher than the Ford Crown Victorias used in his fleet, the gas savings will more than offset that during the expected two-year life of the vehicles, he said.
The key will be whether the gasoline-electric hybrids will be sturdy enough to avoid high maintenance costs under heavy-duty taxi-driving conditions, he said.
“It’s pretty easy to fix the Crown Vics,” he said. “The jury will be out on that (Prius maintenance costs) for a while.”
With gasoline prices rising and greater public concern about climate change, Hughes thinks taxi operators will have to look to hybrid or other technologies to keep going.
“I see a future of plugging-in hybrids running off an electric grid powered mostly by solar energy,” he said. “If we’re going to get away from foreign oil, these are the sorts of things we’ll have to do.”
Other taxi and limousine operators have been experimenting with hybrids, which use electric motors to supplement their internal combustion engines and thereby reduce fuel consumption.
In March, ExecuCar of Phoenix, a subsidiary of SuperShuttle International, added three hybrid Chevrolet Tahoes to its fleet operating out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The company said the new vehicles would save about 8 miles per gallon with every trip.
Hughes has looked at alternative vehicles for several years, but hasn’t found an answer so far. Taxis that were modified to run on compressed natural gas have been plagued with maintenance problems, he said. A hybrid Ford Escape SUV didn’t work out economically, and a Honda Civic hybrid was too small for customer comfort.
After extensive research, Hughes thinks the Prius may be the answer. The back seat is big enough for three people, and the car has a good crash-test rating — important for rider safety, he said. And Hughes figures the cars will work economically even in the unlikely event that gasoline drops to $2.60 a gallon.
Because of the fuel savings, Hughes said it won’t be necessary to raise rates because of the Prius purchases, although he said rates may rise anyway because the company will continue to operate some Crown Victorias that run solely on gasoline. Taxi fares are not regulated in the Valley except for cabs that serve Sky Harbor.
“It would be my hope we would eventually have the entire fleet in Priuses,” Hughes said. “We’re at (the oil companies’) mercy, and I want a hedge against that.”
Taxi companies across the country are looking at alternatives to counter high gas prices, but it’s too early to know yet how hybrids will work out, said Alfred LaGasse, chief executive of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, a national group based in Rockville, Md.
“We are in the process of doing a survey of what our members are doing with hybrids, and it appears that in the major metro areas, there is serious experimentation,” he said.
But it will take a while to determine if the Prius and other hybrids can hold up in high-mileage taxi service, he said.
“We need to see if the batteries will hold up,” he said. “If the batteries don’t hold up and we have to buy new ones, that’s $8,000. That’s expensive.”
But he added that the association is “cautiously optimistic.”