Mitsubishi i-MiEV taxi drive in Kyoto

With the revenge of the electric car well and truly underway, the chances of seeing mums and dads getting behind the wheel of a zero-emissions vehicle is increasing by the day - especially if you live in Japan (or California).
- shares

But what about taxis and fleets, will we see a big shift towards EVs by major companies concerned with their public image and a moral sense of environmental responsibility?

After the Tokyo motor show, CarAdvice headed up to Kyoto where Mitsubishi has stationed two full-time i-MiEV taxis as part of a trial to see how electric vehicles cope with the daily grind of continuous commuting.

It might seem illogical in large Australian cities where cabs seemingly have to cover long distances, but in dense and hugely populated areas like Japan, electric taxis make perfect sense. Here in the imperial city (once the capital of Japan and home to the emperor) the i-MiEV taxis spend the majority of their time stuck in traffic, commuting tourists from one ancient temple to the next. It's in this environment where the true benefits of i-MiEV come to life.

Thankfully for its citizens, the city of Kyoto is paranoid about its air pollution, hence why it's giving the likes of i-MiEV and Nissan's LEAF a big chance to prove their worth as part of the city's transportation infrastructure. It's important to remember that Japan has had electric Shinkansen (bullet trains) that can travel faster than 200km/h since the 1960s (first hit 300km/h+ in 1979), so they're a little bit ahead of the curve.

There are 13 fast charging stations positioned throughout the city, which means a 30-minute charge (from empty to 80 per cent) is always only a few kilometres away, making any potentially embarrassing "ran-out-of-power" situation an improbability.

You might be thinking how a car as small as an i-MiEV can serve as a taxi with limited cargo and seating capacity, indeed that is an obvious issue (an area where the Nissan LEAF has the upper hand) but the two petite female drivers in charge have ensured all the limited space is put to good use. Given the tall roof, the back seats offer more than enough head and leg room for two large adults.

Our first cab driver had switched to the i-MiEV after driving conventional taxis for the past 16 years. As she chauffeured us around Kyoto's many historical sites, she told us (via a translator) that she very much enjoys the peaceful calm and limited sound the electric motor generates, noting that driving for 13 hours a day is a chore diffused (ever so slightly) by the quiet nature of Mitsubishi's electric car.

The second driver, a younger and more joyful character, had only become a cabbie in the past few months and was enjoying the swift acceleration of her i-MiEV around town, showing us how easy it was to quickly overtake traffic.

Both drivers fast charge their i-MiEV two times a day and cover anywhere between 120-150km. Not exactly the official 160km in a single charge figure we had been expecting but then again, that's 13 hours of driving, so the vehicles do spend a considerable amount of time sitting in traffic with heating/air conditioning and other energy-sucking systems running in the background.

The long-term implications of electric taxis are huge and with many fares around Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane CBDs being less than 30km, a fleet of i-MiEV taxis to service inner city areas would make sense if the infrastructure was in place.

Therein lies the biggest hurdle with electric-car uptake: manufacturers have to convince governments around the world of the benefits.

In that regard Australia is at the very end of the "supporters list", with the Federal Government giving no incentives to buyers of EVs. In fact, despite all the talk and chest pumping the government does in fighting global warming, Australia is the only country in the world where EVs are sold without government support. The counter argument is that electric cars in Australia use 'dirty power'. However, not only can that be offset, but the efficiency and lower CO2 emissions of coal-generated power to electric car drive in comparison to fossil fuel is substantial.

In California, the state and federal governments chip in considerable amounts of money (up to US$12,500) to entice buyers into economically friendly vehicles. Japan, Europe and even China have similar strategies. Perhaps, like Kyoto, they also care for their air pollution.

Despite the prices being lower than originally expected, Mitsubishi has sold only 27 i-MiEVs since its public launch in the middle of this year. Without government incentives, electric cars are a rather expensive operation - particularly for taxi operators working on tight budgets. In some states the Toyota Prius and Hybrid Camry have become a default choice for operators, as they provide a balance between electric and petrol-powered vehicles.

Perhaps the government will come to grips with the future of the automobile in the near future. In the meantime Japan and California are the places to be if you want to see electric cars used as part of daily life.