Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In Singapore, Taxis Trade Charm for Cleaner Emissions

Original Article

SINGAPORE — For more than two decades, the Toyota Comfort has served as the foundation for taxi fleets in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore (where it is badged as the Crown). The small, unassuming sedan is known for being rugged and dependable. Its simple cubic design is a cross between a vintage Checker Marathon and an old Toyota Camry. But recently the largest taxi company in Singapore has started to think outside the box.

ComfortDelGro, which operates more than 41,000 taxicabs around the world (though mostly in Asia), has started to phase out its Toyota Comforts in favor of new Hyundai Sonatas. The Sonatas emit less pollution and get better fuel mileage. But for a taxi traditionalist like me, the Comfort’s appeal lies much deeper than its slab-sided sheet metal.

Three years ago during my first trip to Singapore, I fell for the Comfort’s classic charm. Sliding onto the rear bench seat, I noticed that the Comfort’s interior was a time warp of black vinyl and easy-clean rubber floors, which, this being Singapore, were actually cleaned on a regular basis. The Comfort had a springy ride that conjured up fond childhood memories of bouncing along in a yellow school bus. In comparison, the murky confines of New York taxis leave me feeling squashed as if I were in the back seat of a police cruiser.

So imagine my surprise and dismay this summer when, while packing for another vacation in Singapore, I learned that the Toyota Comfort’s days were numbered. Naturally, I phoned ComfortDelGro and arranged to visit its headquarters during my trip.

ComfortDelGro, a bright white box of a building that’s as tidy as the immaculate interiors of the company’s taxicabs, was a 15-minute cab ride from my hotel in Singapore’s bustling central business district. Tammy Tan I-Lin, the company’s communications officer, greeted me with a smile and apologized for the long drive and the remote location. Confused, I smiled back and gave a polite shrug, figuring that a brief relaxed cab ride must seem like a burden in a country as small as Singapore.

ComfortDelGro has about 15,000 taxicabs in Singapore, and more than 2,700 of those are the new Hyundai taxis.

Powered by a 2-liter 4-cylinder diesel engine, the Sonata CRDI meets current European (Euro IV) emissions standards. The Comfort, with its 3-liter diesel engine, only meets the older Euro II standards. The Sonata also offers more than 30 miles per gallon, versus the mid-20s offered in the Comfort, and a longer driving range.

According to the ComfortDelGro’s estimate, its fleet of Singapore taxis averages 470,000 trips a day, which means the switch to Sonatas will provide a huge reduction in emissions and fuel usage.

Haniff Bin Mahbob, a Singapore taxi driver since the early-1980s, told me that he preferred his new Sonata to the Comfort. “In terms of ride, comfort, automatic transmission and ABS,” the Sonata is better, he said.

Kelven Chua, who drives a Hyundai Azera, known as a Comfort “limo taxi,” said that the car’s automatic transmission takes the pain out of Singapore’s rush-hour traffic. Another driver, Edward Chee Chan Boon, said: “I remember the first taxi I drove didn’t even have power steering.”

At the far end of Comfort’s dispatch center, a computer display showcased the company’s elaborate new G.P.S. system, which tracks every one of the company’s taxis in real time.

The details of my morning taxi ride were punched in, and the exact route, distance, time and price of the trip appeared on a digital map of Singapore. The G.P.S. system helps dispatchers manage the fleet better and allows drivers to make better use of their time (and fuel tanks) by suggesting the quickest routes, while also avoiding gridlocked roads. It’s a sort of HAL 9000 for taxicabs and possibly as much a solution to improving mileage and pollution levels as the cleaner new taxis.

Watching the demonstration, I learned that the system limits the fuel burned by the drivers searching for a fare, or time spent in clogged traffic.

Nevertheless, for visitors who come to Singapore for a brief stay, even modern amenities are no substitute for tradition. “My passengers are very happy with the Comfort’s room,” Mr. Boon said. “Many tourists insist on the car.”

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