“Everybody thought I was crazy. They said the car was too small to be a cab.”
He even had potential fares come up to the car then refuse to get in once they saw the hybrid badging, saying they’d wait for another taxi.
“They figured it was unsafe.”
That was back in the winter of 2000-01, when the then 20-year veteran Vancouver taxi driver became the first cab driver on the planet to use a hybrid vehicle.
Little did Grant expect that less than a decade-and-a-half later, hybrid taxis would be the norm on downtown streets, nor that Vancouver would be regarded as the model for big city hybrid fleets.
And it all started with a humble 2001 Toyota Prius.
Actually, it started a few years earlier, when Grant first caught wind of the Japanese automaker’s emerging hybrid technology,
Back then, the taxi owner philosophy, according to Grant, was “buy a used car, three to five years old, preferably an ex-police car, and drive it into the ground. Putting a brand-new car on the road as a cab was totally foreign to the business.”
In large part, that was because one out of three cabs would not see its life expectancy because of accidents. “The average cab gets in some kind of accident every 18 months.”
That was another reason his fellow cabbies thought he was crazy when he put the all-new Prius on the road.
What they didn’t know was that Grant was a numbers wonk, and over the course of his two decades driving cab, he’d created spreadsheets crunching the costs of running his cars — everything from fuel, maintenance, dispatch fees, insurance and downtime — “to the point that I knew exactly what it was costing me to run the car per hour.”
Once he received the specs on that first-generation Prius, he sensed he was on to something.
Specifically, Grant calculated that using it as a taxi, and if gas remained at the then cost of 50 cents a litre, he could pay for the car in just three years.
“The thing about a hybrid is that it requires less service than a gas-powered car,” he explained. “Instead of getting serviced every two weeks, which was typical of a regular cab back then, my Prius would be in every three weeks.”
And downtime to a cab means a loss of revenue to the owner/operator.
According to Grant, the biggest wear factors in a city taxi are the transmission, brakes and the mechanical moving parts, “but the concept behind a hybrid is that the (gas) engine is only running when you need it, otherwise it is just idling.” In addition, the Prius’s Continuously Variable Transmission had far fewer moving parts than a gear-based gearbox.
“I could drive my (hybrid) car for a full (12-hour) shift for five bucks, and the average for a gas-powered cab back then was twenty bucks,” he said, admitting that at 50 cents a litre that really wasn’t too big of a difference, but adding that fuel savings were not the reason he put the hybrid to use as a cab. Rather, it was the total operating cost.
“The first question once we started driving away on electric-only power was, ‘is this an electric car,’” he recalled of those early fares. For many riders, this was the first time they’d ever been in a hybrid vehicle.
He quickly built up a private client list, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace and Gregor Robertson, then the owner of Happy Planet.
Local greenies weren’t the only ones taking notice, as across the Pacific Ocean, Andrew Grant’s exploits were being watched with interest.
“Mine was the only Prius in the world that was sending parts back to Japan, because I was wearing things out,” he said, adding that the very first thing that went was the exhaust system, at about the 18-month point.
“With a cab, in cold weather you have to keep the car running at all times, even when at a cab stand, sometimes for up to an hour-and-a-half.
“With a hybrid vehicle, the car would start up with the gas engine, bring the batteries up to full power then shut off. Then once the batteries ran down a little, the engine would start up again.”
That cycle would build up condensation in the exhaust, since unlike a regular car that just blows out that water buildup, in the Prius it would just sit there. And rust.
Toyota engineers back in Japan were shocked to see this issue, as it was something they never accounted for, and a couple of months later one of those engineer contacted Grant to see what he was doing to the car to create this problem.
“We had a half-hour conversation, and his first question was, ‘How long do you plan on keeping this car on the road?’”
Grant said three years, to which the engineer asked how many kilometres did he expect to put on the car by then.
“I said 300,000, and his response was, ‘you’re crazy.’” Get in line.
First off, the engineer said, the car was never designed to be used commercially because in Japan at the time, the only vehicle used as a cab was a purpose-built Toyota called the Cressida.
“I told him I believed that in the Prius they had built the first car that could be used as a cab and pay for itself in three years.”
It wouldn’t take long for Japan to come calling again.
“At about the 25-month point, they called and said they wanted my car. ‘What kind of deal can we make with you?’ ‘We want to ship this car back to Japan and strip it down.’”
Engineers working on the next generation Prius, the 2004 model, regarded Grant’s taxi as a rolling R&D platform, full of information about wear and tear.
A deal was struck, and Grant had a brand new 2003 model delivered, already with the cab package installed. He put 142,000 kilometres on it over the course of the next 11 months, bought the all-new 2004 model to use as his work car, and retired the 2003 to use as his personal car. He still drives it and it currently has 223,000 kilometres on it.
“And it’s had nothing but general servicing done to it.”
Toyota engineers didn’t share the details with Grant about what they learned from his original Prius, but did tell him that the bands in the generator were starting to melt together. “That was mostly due to the fact the car was running 22 to 24 hours a day.”
And they were ‘blown away’ by the brake pad life. In a typical taxi, the brake pads are replaced every six to eight months. Grant first changed the front pads on his Prius at just over 300,000 kilometres and the rear ones at just over a half-million. Also, in a typical gas-powered cab, the transmission required changing every 18 to 24 months, but in all his Prius cabs, he never had to replace one. And something as innocuous as a signal light, which gets a real workout on a cab, gets replaced every 24 months or so. Grant never once had to replace one on any of his Prius cabs.
The 2004 Prius worked Vancouver streets until 2011, with a final odometer reading just over 1.5 million kilometres.
“And during it’s entire life, no major component failures. Some parts wore out, as is expected, but the batteries lasted that long.”
Grant has since retired as a cabbie, and today is a Commercial Hybrid Vehicle Consultant, sharing his knowledge and experiences with individuals, businesses and local and provincial governments.
So what does the man almost single-handedly responsible for the hybrid taxi industry see on the horizon.
“All-electric cabs will be here in a couple of years, but the real game-changer is going to be autonomous cars.”