taxis-san-francisco.jpgA new Toyota Prius unveiled today in San Francisco could mean a push for all-electric cars to be incorporated into the city’s taxi service in the next two or three years, according to city officials.

Although about 60 percent of the city’s taxis are already hybrids, the new hybrid differs from its predecessors because it can be plugged in and charged.

It can drive about 13 miles exclusively on electricity before switching to fuel power, which officials said they hope is a first step toward introducing all-electric cars to San Francisco’s taxis and city-owned vehicles.

“I always believe halfway is no way,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said.

“The real game changer is plug-in technology.”

The city is working with a Palo Alto-based company called Better Place to push a pilot program for all-electric taxis in the next two to three years, said Vandana Bali, manager of the San Francisco Clean Cities Coalition.

“Plug-in is not always going to work because taxis operate all the time,” Bali said.

Better Place offers robotic stations capable of swapping out batteries for electric cars that are built to use changeable batteries, spokeswoman Julie Mullins said.

It’s the only company in the world with this technology, and switching a battery at the stations takes less time than filling up at a gas pump, she said.

Swap stations are currently in Tel Aviv and Tokyo, where a swappable battery program for taxis is already in operation.

“It’s a very good option for the taxi niche,” Bali said.

The charge time for plug-in cars around San Francisco ranges from 1.5 to five hours, according to officials.

Cars in San Francisco produce about 50 percent of the city’s greenhouse gases. Among the 8,000 city-owned cars are a number of older vehicles that authorities are trying phase out.

“Eighty-five cars have been identified as being over 12 years old,” City Administrator Edwin Lee said.

Lee added that officials are investigating how the city is using city cars in order to further reduce the vehicle count.

“The departments use them for their own necessities, but do they use them in the best way?” he said.

The city is also trying to provide incentives for residents to switch to vehicles with a plug-in option.

Pending grant approval, more than 60 chargers at about 20 public garages will be installed in San Francisco by the end of 2010, said Johanna Partin, San Francisco’s director of climate protection initiatives.

Residents will also be able to have city permit fees waived if they opt to have chargers built in their homes.

The new chargers being installed around the city are slated to go on the ground level or first floor of garages for easy access, Newsom said.

The plug-in Prius won’t be available to consumers until 2012, but Toyota has lent more than 150 hybrids to cities in Northern and Southern California for officials to test-drive the vehicles before they officially hit the streets, the mayor’s office said.

Despite Toyota’s push to sell cars, city officials firmly advocated public transportation.
“There is definitely a push to get people out of cars and onto public transit,” said Mark Westlund, spokesman for San Francisco’s environment department.

“The first thing we want to do is to get people out of cars,” he said. “But if they have to drive, it should be in the cleanest, most fuel-efficient car available.”

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