HONG KONG -- Wong Sek-lun, a taxi driver in Hong Kong, is not impressed by the idea of using an electric cab.
“They wouldn't go very far before running out of battery, which means you’d have to recharge them twice in a shift,” he said, while driving through slow-moving traffic in his petrol-engine vehicle in the ubiquitous red.
While the adoption of electric vehicles has been slow here, Hong Kong’s large fleet of taxis could soon become a testing ground for meaningful inclusion of more electric and hybrid cars on the roads.
But the limitations of driving electric vehicles, which have no emissions when driven, make them seem impractical for taxis, experts say, for precisely the reason that Wong mentioned.
Roadside pollution is one of the most in-your-face environmental problems here — you really do feel it, on a daily basis, in your face. Vehicle emissions, some of them diesel, on highly congested roads are to blame, and they contribute to 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the government.
In April, there were a meager 310 purely electric vehicles in use in Hong Kong, many of which belonged to the government. That is out of the more than 550,000 vehicles in the city.
But Hong Kong taxi companies’ adoption of electric vehicles, as well as hybrids, soon to be in a trial stage, could be a first step in creating awareness about these types of cars, analysts say. Hong Kong has more than 18,000 taxis.
Earlier this year, Nissan had announced plans of introducing 50 of its Leaf model electric taxis next year as a trial, and then deliver about 100 of its NV200 electric vans, which are slated to be used in London and New York as taxis.
The Chinese electric carmaker BYD had similarly said it would also introduce into the local fleet its e6 model, while the dealer of Fiat planned to make its move with its Doblo electric van.
This month, Toyota’s distributor here said that it had received orders for 20 hybrid taxis, which are fueled by petrol but run partly on batteries, which lessens their carbon emissions significantly.
And in a city that has been slow in adopting “green” car technologies, riding as a passenger in one of these taxis will be the first contact for many here to the world of low-emissions vehicles.
“Most people in Hong Kong still have some reservations about using electric cars,” said Eric Cheng, professor of electrical engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Cheng said having electric taxis on the roads would be a strong way to promote electric vehicles to the Hong Kong population in general, especially if the government could subsidize rides in those taxis.
The main concern among the public, Cheng said, is the limited distance that electric vehicles can go before needing to be recharged, which produces what the industry calls range anxiety. “In a taxi, they don’t know how much of the battery is left, so more people will be brave about taking the EV car.”
But the short range of electric cars — about 100 kilometers — is particularly problematic for taxis. Most taxis travel about 400 kilometers per shift, which means they will have to be recharged at least twice, according to analysts.
Another reason the general public is reluctant to adopt electric vehicles is worries about accessing charging stations. Right now, there are about 1,000 charging ports in the city.
“Unless the government has a law or rule that every car park has charging ports so we can recharge our vehicles at night, it will be very difficult” to have widespread usage of electric vehicles, said K.T. Chau, the director of the International Research Centre for Electric Vehicles at the University of Hong Kong.
For this reason, Chau said he does not think it makes sense to use electric taxis. Instead, he thinks hybrids are a more realistic solution. “The hybrid electric vehicle is very mature and it can instantaneously not totally solve but alleviate pollution problems, particularly roadside emissions,” he said.
Some other developed countries in the region like Japan and South Korea have come to embrace electric cars, but that is because they have car industries that promote the use of electric vehicles, says Chau.
Despite the drawbacks, the public transportation sector is receiving large subsidies from the government for introducing low-emissions vehicles into their fleets.
But for Wong, who rents his cab from a taxi company, he only sees hassle in the prospect of becoming a guinea pig in the early days of electric taxis. “Unless the government requires you to use electric taxis, then there’s nothing you could do about it,” he said. “Otherwise, no one would want to recharge twice a day.”
Photo: Flickr/Laure Wayaffe