Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 | 7:39 a.m.
Jason Awad has never shied away from trying something new.
The owner of Lucky Cab Co. bucked the taxi tradition of larger cars a few years ago when he began adding small Chevrolet Impalas and eventually even smaller Toyota Camrys to his fleet of 120 automobiles.
Three months ago, however, Awad went even further by purchasing four hybrid Toyota Prius cars. The four hybrid cabs are being put through their paces to see if they can withstand taxis' 100,000-miles-a-year average and remain viable.
The move puts Las Vegas in an exclusive group of cities that have rolled out hybrid taxicabs, including San Francisco, New York and San Antonio, said Todd Sigaty, executive director of the New York-based Coalition for Smart Transportation.
A Chicago taxicab operator is expected to introduce hybrids in the coming weeks, Sigaty said.
Awad says the Las Vegas trial has been "so far, so good."
"The only issue so far is luggage," he said, pointing out the limited trunk space. "Everything else on the car has been pretty strong."
But Lucky Cab General Manager Rich Frakes emphasized that the cars have not been subjected yet to a full summer of scorching temperatures with the air conditioning blasting.
"This summer will be the true test," he said.
As a taxicab, the Prius is performing well below its advertised rate of 60 miles per gallon, Awad said. Still, the fuel efficiency of 35 and 40 mpg is far stronger than any other vehicle in the fleet.
For example, the Mercury Marquis gets less than 13 mpg, the Impala gets less than 16 and the Camry gets less than 19.
Over the course of a year -- and about 100,000 miles -- a Prius would save $15,775 in gasoline costs compared with a Marquis and nearly $7,884 versus a Camry, based on the $2.88 a gallon Lucky was paying in September for fuel.
"Nobody can predict the price of gasoline," Awad said. "We have no control over that, but we can control the type of vehicles we put on the road."
However, gasoline wasn't the only motivation for testing the hybrid vehicles, which use an electric motor as a backup to a traditional gasoline-powered engine, he said.
"If the price of gas was the only factor, I would say now that we don't need them," he explained, citing current gasoline prices that have dropped to about $2.10 a gallon.
With 1,675 cabs in the Las Vegas Valley, cutting gasoline usage and emissions could go a long way in improving the local environment, Awad said.
"I've been living here for 35 years," he said. "I've seen the growth. I've seen the congestion. I hope my children want to live here too, and I want to do my part."
Awad said a best-case scenario would be to break even on the hybrids. The Prius, at $27,000, costs about $10,000 more than the Camry. The company does, however, get to take advantage of a $2,000 federal incentive for hybrid purchases.
There's also the gasoline savings. But because Lucky doesn't pay for the full cost of the fuel used by the cabs, a portion of those savings goes to the drivers, who split upfront gasoline costs with the company and have a percentage reimbursed later based on their driving record. The policy is designed to encourage good driving and conservation, Frakes said.
One question still to be answered is the cost of maintenance. While Lucky's mechanics are well aware of the cost of parts for a Camry, costs of Prius repairs are unknown.
Frakes said the company expects to pay about $3,000 for a new battery system should one fail, a price far greater than most traditional repairs.
"Overall, the jury is still out," Awad said.
Still, Lucky is getting high marks for its efforts.
"I think that's great. Good for them," said Rebecca Wagner, Gov. Kenny Guinn's energy adviser. "That shows ... progressive thinking, and it's essentially saying that this type of effort is becoming mainstream."
The Nevada Taxicab Authority, which regulates the industry, was equally supportive.
"Absolutely -- we would be completely supportive of any progressive moves like that," investigator and spokesman Rob Stewart said. "God knows we need it here in Clark County."
While other operators have used alternative fuels such as propane, Lucky is the first to use hybrid vehicles. "As far as I know, that's the only one," Stewart said.
The authority must approve and inspect all vehicles before they enter a fleet. "We check all vehicles for EPA standards and safety," he said. "That's our biggest thing, safety."
Like all cabs, Lucky's hybrids will be subject to quarterly inspections to make sure they remain road-worthy, Stewart said.
Sigaty said the Coalition for Smart Transportation has identified commercial vehicles -- such as taxi, municipal and delivery fleets -- as prime for hybrid conversions.
"It's an opportunity to make an incredible impact," he said.
Because of the numbers involved, the conversion of commercial vehicles would quickly affect gasoline usage and environmental quality.
"It's a no-brainer, really," Sigaty said.
CAST supported the $2,000 federal rebate for hybrids established in a national energy bill this year, and it also is pressing for an additional tax rebate for commercial hybrid vehicles that could be passed as part of a pending vehicle security act.
Additionally, CAST has supported state incentives for hybrids, such as a $3,000 sales tax exemption in New York. Sigaty said 25 states currently have some incentive for hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles.
Nevada is not among those states.
Kevin Rademacher can be reached at 259-4069 or at [email protected]