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Reimagining New York’s cabs, down to the floor mats


LA JOLLA, Calif. >> The goateed French designer and the bespectacled New York City bureaucrat had been at it for about 20 minutes now, politely arguing about the pros and cons of a particular style of plastic sheet.

“It’s more modern,” said the Frenchman, speaking from inside a life-size mockup of a yellow minivan, parked, somewhat incongruously, in an outdoor zen garden-cum-design studio on the outskirts of this oceanside village. “Mmm,” said his client, David S. Yassky, the taxi commissioner of New York City. “I’m just not comfortable with that.”

The subject of this debate was a humdrum object more commonly perceived as a fogged-up, scratchiti-marred eyesore: the plastic partition separating the front and rear seats of a yellow cab.

But Yassky and the designer, Francois Farion of Nissan, were in the midst of rethinking every element of New York’s next taxicab, and when a once-in-a-lifetime chance like that comes along, no detail can be overlooked.

As the winner of the Taxi of Tomorrow contest, Nissan secured a 10-year contract, worth an estimated $1 billion in sales, to be the sole manufacturer of New York City’s 13,000 cabs. In return, the company pledged to create a bespoke taxicab: the first car since the Checker to be designed nearly from the ground up for the sole purpose of carrying millions of tourists, businesspeople and intoxicated clubgoers around the rough-and-tumble streets of New York City. (The Ford Crown Victoria and other taxis were typically retrofitted for the job.)

Starting in late 2013, cab company owners will be required by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to buy the Nissan NV 200, which is expected to cost about $29,000, as they retire their existing cabs. The Nissans will be phased in over three to five years, with exceptions for wheelchair-accessible cabs.

The NV 200 will be officially unveiled on Tuesday ahead of the New York auto show. But the final decisions happened here, in a series of meetings in December behind the black tinted windows of Nissan’s sleek, glass-and-concrete U.S. design headquarters.

A reporter from The New York Times was allowed to sit in on the proceedings, which followed months of discussions and research.

It is rare for a global corporation like Nissan, which is accustomed to selling its vehicles on multiple continents, to design a car for a single metropolitan market, and from the start, the company, whose U.S. headquarters is in Tennessee, lacked Big Apple expertise. Farion, who went to Nissan from Peugeot, observed that the Taxi of Tomorrow was being overseen by a French designer at a studio in California on behalf of a Japanese company: “We have to get in a New York mood, in a not-particularly New York atmosphere.”

To help, the company performed its own taxi autopsy, dismantling retired cabs to find the internal injuries that years of taxi service can bring. The gruesome results, presented to Yassky’s team, included rusted-over suspensions and broken underbodies. Shift knobs had been rubbed down to a nub.

The company also sent scouts to determine the current conditions in New York. The results were similarly grim.

“The state of materials in the cab — the state of the partition, the vinyl — it’s torn and dirty,” said Farion, who spent a month hailing cabs at all hours of the day. “Being French, I’m not germophobic in the least, but it was a very urban and derelict environment that we wanted to change.”

The session began with a review by Steve Monk, a Nissan director of vehicle testing, of the particular challenges faced by cars that spend 24 hours a day trundling along New York’s distinctly pockmarked streets.

A chart was presented that compared the wear and tear on New York City taxis with cars in the rest of the world. Manhattan roads, it turns out, are about four times rougher than the American average, and only third-world countries in South America and Africa beat up their cars more.

“It’s not like you’ve got much deeper potholes than the worst part of the world,” Monk told the New Yorkers, prompting some laughter. “They’re normal potholes that you drive over much more frequently in a short period of time.”

Next up was the choosing of the horns. The city, in announcing the Taxi of Tomorrow, heralded a “low annoyance” horn that would be gentler than the current honk, which one Nissan executive described as “a very guttural scream kind of a situation.”

Three choices were proffered. The first option, more common to Europe, had a screechy, goofy tone; Yassky grimaced slightly as the honk filled the room.

“That was the clown car one,” Mike Hobson, who oversees fleet vehicles for Nissan, said with a grin.

Option two, at a higher pitch, was illustrated with a photograph of a child blasting an air horn.

Finally, a solution was found. Yassky tensed for the third horn, only to relax as a mournful trumpet blast resonated through the speakers. It was deep but not jarring, loud but not shrill. As a comparison, Hobson replayed the Crown Vic horn; its piercing two-tone note caused the room to break out laughing. “It’s more grating, to be sure,” Yassky said.

With the horn settled, the discussion shifted to the cab’s appearance. Nissan has picked a brighter yellow paint than is currently seen in the taxi fleet, and Farion pointed out that today’s most common yellow “is a bit too heavy, very red, and a little dull.” The cab’s interior is set to include yellow stitching and a yellow trim on the seat belt for a unified look.

Foul odor was among the most common complaints expressed by passengers in focus groups, so an anti-microbial material is being used for the NV 200’s flooring, to kill germs and absorb smells. The mats, which resemble the speckled floors of Lexington Avenue line subway cars, are partially made of recycled tires.

The partition, however, was more divisive. Farion was in favor of a more stylish look — a solid sheath of Plexiglas, with only a handful of quarter-size holes. The passenger would be walled off from the front seat, but Nissan engineers suggested that a London-style two-way intercom could be installed so riders could still talk to the driver.

But Yassky preferred the traditional, slide-to-open window. “I worry that if it’s completely closed off, then there’s really no opportunity for interaction between driver and passenger,” he said, noting that some cabbies think speaking to riders can lead to better tips.

The intercom speaker would be installed just below the cabbies’ picture ID. One Nissan executive suggested a muting option: “Imagine the face with an ‘X’ across it!” he said, to laughter.

One engineer wondered if the intercom would provide clearer communication. “I feel that’s a pretty big ‘if’ to be relying on,” Yassky said. (Nissan is sticking with the traditional opening for now.)

Back in the conference room, another drawn-out discussion pivoted on the design of the taxi’s roof light. Can it be duller in the back, since fewer people hail cabs from behind? (Yes.) Should it include a second pair of turn signals? (No.)

Other topics came fast and furious: What sort of storage beneath the driver’s seat, net or bin? What about the color of the meter cover?

By 5 p.m., the group was beginning to tire. A needling debate over the attributes of the partition’s coin slot — Should it be rugged to keep coins from slipping? How much of an angle to avoid a rainfall of change? — was cut off. “Let’s pick and move on,” Yassky said.

The taxi project is viewed as a coup by Nissan, which has already begun a tie-in marketing campaign. But it was also a novel, and sometimes difficult, process for a multibillion-dollar corporation that rarely has to cope with a real live customer sitting in on its planning meetings, kvetching about backseat air-conditioning levels and needling its design ideas.

All that negotiation can make a car designer “feel they are getting directed like a puppet on a string,” Farion said over a seafood dinner, after wrapping up a 12-hour day of discussions. “We rarely design a car for two or three levels of customers, and that’s really what we have here: you design for the TLC, the customer, the cab driver, the fleet owner, and you have to satisfy each a little bit.”

This week in New York, Nissan will try to win over skeptics who wonder if the NV 200 — a plump, soccer-mom-style van that even the mayor conceded had a suburban feel — can replace the iconic Crown Vic and Checker cabs in New Yorkers’ hearts and minds.

The car will feature a host of amenities, including airplane-style reading lights, power outlets to charge smartphones and laptops, a transparent roof for skyline views and floor lights to ensure purses are not lost during late-night rides.

Still, Nissan knows it faces a tough audience. In a company-sponsored focus group last year, some New Yorkers said they were unsure about the whole endeavor: “It’s a 10-minute cab ride anyway, so why bother?”

“New Yorkers are so used to their cab rides,” Farion said, “that they sometimes forget how it could be better.”

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