San Francisco electric taxi network in limbo after Better Place abandons plan 

click to enlarge A $7 million electric taxi network plan included four battery-swapping stations. Financial and technological problems have left the proposal in limbo. - COURTESY RENDERING
  • Courtesy Rendering
  • A $7 million electric taxi network plan included four battery-swapping stations. Financial and technological problems have left the proposal in limbo.

A $7 million initiative to outfit San Francisco with an electric vehicle network and add 61 new clean-energy taxis has collapsed, forcing The City’s transportation agency to reconsider whether to pursue the ambitious plan.

But for the company set to receive the 61 new cabs, the development comes as no surprise.

“We were never really overhyped about this, we just wanted to show our public support for the plan,” said Jim Gillespie, a manager at Yellow Cab.

In 2010, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Silicon Valley startup Better Place were awarded a federal grant to implement the electric taxi network, which would have included four battery-swapping stations in San Jose and The City. Better Place was in charge of installing the stations and finding manufacturers to build the 61 electric taxis, which would have been added to the fleet of Yellow Cab. At the time, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom called it a “major advancement for the Bay Area’s electric vehicle infrastructure.”

However, after years of domestic financial struggles, Better Place made an announcement last week that it would scale down its plans in California to focus more on Israel and Denmark. The company’s proposal for San Francisco has been abandoned.

“We are aware of Better Place’s new business plan and are working now to develop a way to move forward with expanding our electric vehicle network,” said transit agency spokesman Paul Rose.

John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional agency that dispersed the federal grant, said the funding was part of an innovative climate change program aimed at finding promising new technologies.

“The whole point of the program was determining which one of these plans had a real future,” Goodwin said. “Obviously, this one failed to launch.”

Gillespie said an electric taxi network will only work when a vehicle is able to travel 200 miles without needing a battery recharge. Right now, most electric cars max out at 75 miles, he said.

“The technology just isn’t there yet for this to be practical,” Gillespie said.

Not a penny of the $7 million federal grant has been spent so far, Goodwin said. The agency will get to keep $1 million of the grant to pursue other clean-energy initiatives, but it will have to come up with a new proposal over the next several months if it wants to retain the remaining $6 million. Otherwise, Goodwin said, the funding will return to the region.

Although Better Place said it will focus its efforts outside the U.S., the company has left open the possibility of returning to California.

“Better Place is fortunate to have solid, long-standing relationships with a very supportive ecosystem of partners and stakeholders in California,” said Jason Wolf, the company’s vice president of the North America region. “We continue to believe in the transformational nature of Better Place and its potential in the U.S. longer term.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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Will Reisman

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