Taxi-E: Plugged into the future – Ruud Zandvliet

Pollution in big cities has become a major social and political issue, and many are pinning their hopes on electric vehicles as a big part of the solution. Ruud Zandvliet, co-founder of innovative taxi service TAXI-E, is proving that fully electric cars such as the Nissan LEAF can make a big difference to emissions without compromising performance or the passenger experience.

The sustainable rationale behind electric cars is obvious - they vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions - but their wider adoption has been hampered by problems of perception and a lack of the infrastructure needed to charge their batteries. The infrastructure issues are steadily being addressed, and perceptions are being challenged as people experience electric vehicles for themselves.

A taxi service provides an ideal proving ground for the advances in electric vehicles, as has been demonstrated by an innovative new service in the Netherlands.

"A taxi is typically as polluting as 35 regular cars in the city," says Ruud Zandvliet, co-founder of TAXI-E. "The municipality of Amsterdam is pushing for more electric vehicles at the moment. We are helping to clean the city."

TAXI-E, which was founded a year ago by Zandvliet and his business partner Edvard Hendriksen, operates a taxi service in Amsterdam that uses only fully electric cars - specifically the Nissan LEAF - to minimise emissions. Its business model is built on sustainability and has proven to have great traction, particularly among large corporates.

"The company has just turned a year old and we now operate a fleet of 13 cars in Amsterdam," says Zandvliet. "We mainly serve the corporate market, and our clients include big names like Heineken, ING and ABN AMRO. The company has developed very quickly and our cars have already covered around 500,000km.

"A year and a half ago I was working in finance and my business partner was working in telecoms, but we wanted to start our own company. We both studied economics and we had a very strong belief in sustainability, so we looked at markets that were traditionally polluting. At the same time, the Nissan LEAF came onto the market and we needed a good car," he adds.

Turning over a new LEAF

The Nissan LEAF is an environmentally friendly, affordable five-door family car that was first introduced in Japan and the US in late 2010. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, its official range is 100-140km with an energy consumption of 765 kj/km, while its combined fuel economy is rated at 99mpg gasoline equivalent. According to the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), the LEAF has a range of 175km.

"According to the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), the LEAF has a range of 175km."

The LEAF produces no exhaust pollution or greenhouse gas emissions at the point of operation. Its performance has won it many accolades, including the 2010 Green Car Vision award, the 2011 European Car of the Year and the 2011 World Car of the Year.

"It is the first electric car that is designed to be an electric car," says Zandvliet. "For example, if you look where the charger is on the car, you find that it is much more convenient. The LEAF is the next step in thinking. If you look at the Peugeot iOn, for example, you find that it is smaller, though it is the same price. The charging points on the LEAF are in a better place and the aerodynamics are better. It is not just a normal car with an electric engine put in."

The vehicle's design includes innovative features that are critical to its use in commercial operations like TAXI-E.

"The most important thing is that we can fast-charge in 30 minutes," remarks Zandvliet. "That is essential for us, as we have to charge multiple times a day. If that were not possible then we could not run the business. We have built our entire business model around the car.

"Other cars are coming to market, but for now the LEAF is the only suitable car," he adds.

The LEAF's lower fuel and running costs are key to its value proposition, and these savings are reflected in TAXI-E's fares.

"There is virtually no maintenance and fuel costs are very low," notes Zandvliet. "Most taxis in the Netherlands are Mercedes, so our cars are cheaper. So, the fleet has a very good TCO. As a result, our fares are slightly cheaper, too. For instance, we have a special rate from Amsterdam to Schiphol Airport that is half of what other taxi firms charge."

An attractive pricing structure does not come at the expense of the quality of the passenger experience.

"Most passengers are not aware that they are in a 100% electric car," observes Zandvliet. "When they hear it, they ask if it is a hybrid and we have to explain that it is a fully electric vehicle. Their experience is the same as with a usual taxi, but their trip causes no emissions."

With the LEAF, Nissan has not only focused on the characteristics of the vehicle, but also on additional value-added services such as CARWINGS. This enables drivers to manage their vehicles and control certain functions remotely from a computer or an iPhone. Drivers can, for example, check the charging status of the battery, get reminders, set timers, start charging, turn on the
air-conditioning and find local charging stations. TAXI-E uses CARWINGS to prep the cars and get more miles from the battery by warming it up before use.

With all these advantages, it is no surprise that Zandvliet and Hendriksen worked so hard to persuade Nissan of the value in their idea.

"At first, we had to convince Nissan to sell us the cars," says Zandvliet. "They only had 100 for the Dutch market and everyone wanted them."

Nissan has now seen LEAF sales in the Netherlands exceed 500, and its decision to sell some of its first cars in that market to TAXI-E has proven to be a good decision, as it has enabled a popular service that is expanding rapidly and winning admirers, both among corporates and individual passengers.

"The municipality of Amsterdam is pushing for more electric vehicles. We are helping to clean the city."

"Our clients are very enthusiastic and they are happy to promote use of the service," says Zandvliet. "They are also very interested in using electric vehicles as pool cars. Our drivers are very enthusiastic, too. They were nervous when they started and they were charging after every ride, but now they just hop in the car and they love it.

"For them, the driving experience is more relaxing. There is no shifting and the drive is very smooth. The car has superior driving characteristics. For instance, you have full torque from the start when you pull away from traffic lights, and on the highway they can do 140km/h. We have the fastest taxis in the city," he adds.

Branching out

With a charging infrastructure in place for 50 vehicles in Amsterdam, TAXI-E has set its sights on expanding its fleet to that size, and it is looking to other cities that might benefit from its business model. It is also working on a franchise model.

"We can help people to avoid the pitfalls," says Zandvliet. "For instance, you cannot run out of battery with a passenger in the car. If you do, you will lose that contract. So far, we have had more flat tyres than flat batteries. Also, you won't make money if you charge the battery after every ride, so you need to stretch the power that you have."

The LEAF is fundamental to the TAXI-E service and is proving to be a big step forward in the evolution of electric vehicles. Zandvliet sees the vehicle becoming popular as a corporate pool car, given that most are used for short trips that would be within the range of a single charge, the TCO of the vehicles is lower and there are savings to be made on leasing contracts.

The fast growth of TAXI-E is proving that electric cars can be the future and is successfully challenging the misconceptions that have so far held them back in the marketplace.

Ruud Zandvliet, co-founder of innovative taxi service TAXI-E.