NEW YORK -- Japanese automaker Nissan will replace Ford as supplier of New York City's iconic yellow taxicabs as this city abandons its earlier goal of having an all-hybrid cab fleet, after being twice thwarted by federal courts.

But the deal with Nissan will allow the city to launch a pilot test next year to determine whether having all cabs as electric vehicles at some point in the future is an option it could pursue instead.

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials announced that the city has selected the Nissan NV200 as the next generation of yellow cab, to replace the thousands of Ford Crown Victoria cars that now dominate the streets. The deal gives Nissan an exclusive 10-year, $1 billion contract to build New York's next generation of cabs.

Ford and a Turkish company had also competed for the contract but lost to Nissan's bid. Officials say New York's yellow-cab fleet consists of more than 13,000 vehicles, making it the largest in the country.

New York's Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade says the first Nissan NV200 yellow cabs will begin appearing on city streets in late 2013. David Reuter, Nissan's vice president for corporate communications, says the NV200 will be manufactured in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

"The new taxis will be custom-designed to meet the specific demands of carrying 600,000 passengers a day in New York City traffic and the vehicle meets the top priorities identified by the public in our on-line survey," Mayor Bloomberg said in a release.

The mayor's office figures that the entire fleet will be switched out over the next three to five years, meaning that this city could be saying goodbye once and for all to the gas-guzzling Ford Crown Victoria cab by 2016 at the latest.

Deal includes pilot all-electric taxi test

As part of the deal with Nissan, the company will give the city six of its new Nissan Leaf vehicles imported from Japan to test as all-electric yellow cabs. The small test pilot will be launched in 2012, the city says, and Nissan has promised that it will be capable of manufacturing all-electric versions of the NV200 by 2017 if the city should decide to purchase more electric cars to use as taxicabs.

"We'll have a demonstration fleet of about six vehicles which will be used by certain medallion owners to test the suitability of a fully electric taxi," said Reuter.

The NV200, designed specifically for use as a cab, was selected primarily for its safety features. The cars will have passenger air bags that work with the special partitions that separate drivers from fares. They will also be built with features to guard against collisions with other vehicles and will be the first cars ever to be crash-tested with taxicab infrastructure built in.

Vehicle fuel efficiency was not a criterion for selecting the winner. The reason, says Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna, is because of the federal court rulings that struck down New York City's attempt to control the fuel efficiency of its cab fleet.

"Due to what is known as federal pre-emption on this issue, that a city does not have the authority to regulate its own air quality essentially, that that is a federal prerogative, thus we were not able to use fuel efficiency as a specific criteria here," LaVorgna said.

LaVorgna said the pilot electric cab test could eventually prove to be more groundbreaking than Bloomberg's earlier hybrid taxi promotion efforts. But the city would have to go slowly and start with only six vehicles because it has yet to determine how to recharge a fleet that needs to be in operation 24 hours a day, he said.

City thwarted by court ruling barring mpg standard
The so-called "green taxis" initiative was part of efforts by Bloomberg's administration to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the city over the next few decades, part of the long-term PlaNYC master growth plan. The original aim was to mandate that all new yellow cabs entering the fleet boast a minimum fuel efficiency standard of 25 miles per gallon by fall 2008, rising to 30 mpg by November 2009.

The law was meant to encourage a gradual conversion to a fleet consisting entirely of all gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. As a result, New Yorkers saw hundreds of hybrid yellow cabs appearing on city streets, most of them Ford's hybrid version of the Escape, which boasts 34 miles per gallon in city driving according to Ford Motor Co.

By comparison, the Nissan NV200 taxis will perform at a city/highway average of just 25 miles per gallon.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade initially fought the city, challenging Bloomberg's efforts in 2008 in the courts. The rule was ultimately struck down after judges ruled that only the federal government had the authority to set vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

Last March, a group of congressional lawmakers promised to introduce in the House and Senate legislation that would allow cities to require better fuel economy in taxi fleets. But the contract announced with Nissan yesterday means that New York City is unlikely to take advantage of such a bill, even though its original green cabs efforts inspired the legislation in the first place.

Taxi operators will be allowed to replace aging Crown Victorias with Ford Transit Connects to serve in the interim until the Nissan NV200s are ready for delivery in late 2013. Turkish carmaker Karsan was told that it could supply the city with wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the future.

The $29,000 vehicle that Nissan put forward ended up having the best fuel efficiency among the vehicles in the final running, LaVorgna said.

Ford offered up its existing Transit Connect van for use as taxicab, but city officials were hoping to leverage their buying power to obtain a custom-built vehicle. Meanwhile, Turkish automaker Karsan proposed a vehicle it promised to manufacture in Brooklyn, but city officials reportedly had doubts that the company could pull off its plans.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500