Let's think big on transport, make our taxis electric
An all-electric fleet of taxis would be a massive boon to the drivers, their passengers, the environment and, above all, Ireland's international reputation, writes Alan Cox
True leadership behaviour is a powerful thing. It can transform the perception of a country overnight and bring a significant commercial upside.
Whenever Ireland demonstrates leadership, it reverberates around the world.
Just think of the priceless global publicity that was generated by the marriage equality referendum result. Think also about how our international reputation has recovered due to the management of our economy in recent years.
Another great initiative came to life last week when Intel kicked off its project to turn Dublin into an 'internet of things' city, with the announcement that Croke Park will become a 'living lab' to trial new technologies. Wonderful stuff.
The size of our country is quite an advantage to us; we have the ability to do things quickly (if we want) that larger nations would find logistically unbearable. This is a big opportunity and we should grab it.
But if we are to make an impact, we need to be bold and ambitious. Doing things incrementally achieves little.
For many years, I have been frustrated by our apparent lack of ambition with regard to transport, particularly when it comes to the taxi fleet. We are all familiar with the impact of the famous and iconic taxis of the world's great cities. New York's yellow cabs and London's black cabs are almost as famous as the Empire State and Big Ben. In addition to enhancing the cityscape, they form part of the charm and appeal of these cities.
In Ireland, however, we have one of the most inconsistent and uninspiring taxi fleets in Europe. Vehicles of all different sorts and sizes limp around our cities; there is no standard shape, no standard colour and no standard interior spec. It makes our cities look unprofessional, it creates confusion among visitors and it detracts from our reputation.
We had an opportunity to address this issue in 2012, but instead, we opted for placing a big sticker on the side of the vehicles and called it progress.
At the time of the launch, the then Minister of State for Public Transport Alan Kelly, remarked: "New York has yellow taxis, London has the famous black cabs. These approaches would be far too expensive for Irish taxi drivers."
We must think bigger if we are to achieve Enda Kenny's ambition for Ireland to be the best small country in the world in which to do business. I really like this aspiration, but we must behave like we mean it.
It's time to develop a plan that requires all 17,000 drivers of standard taxis in Ireland to operate the same vehicle type, painted in the same colour and spec'd out to the same high standard. That in itself would be a hugely positive achievement, but there is a bigger opportunity to be grasped.
We should show real leadership and insist that every single taxi operating in this country is an electric vehicle by 2020. What a powerful message this would send around the globe about Ireland's adoption of new technologies and concern for the environment.
Electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions and super-quiet transmissions. The average taxi operating on diesel produces a similar amount of emissions as 35 private cars. Therefore, introducing electric cars considerably helps to improve air quality.
It would also be a great deal for taxi drivers. Imagine the buying power they would have when negotiating with car manufacturers to purchase 17,000 vehicles. They should expect a massive discount on the purchase price plus running costs savings in the region of €7,000 per annum.
Manufacturers such as Nissan have made major strides in advancing battery technology to make electric vehicles effective and viable for the taxi industry. These cars currently have a range of 200km between charges, but this will grow to 400km within the next couple of years.
We already have the basis of a strong network of charging points, which has been managed by the ESB and has the potential to be ramped up to accommodate the requirements of this ambitious E Cab plan.
A number of international cities are dabbling in this already, such as Amsterdam, Shenzhen, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and Brussels, but none has made a game-changing commitment yet.
The most ambitious statement has come from New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hoping that by 2020, a third of the taxi fleet will be electric-powered. There is a real opportunity for Ireland to take a leadership stance and make it happen here.
This is one of those rare cases where everyone wins; taxi drivers, the public, our cities and our nation will all receive a bounce from a plan on this scale.
Not only would this provide the public with a highly professional fleet, but it would generate publicity and goodwill for Ireland around the world.
Rather than stop with this initiative, I would love to see the development of a national innovation strategy that projects Ireland as a global leader in technology and the environment.
Technological advancement is inextricably linked to the environment. Ireland can never hope to realise its dream of being the best small country without excelling in both.
The key would be to have a long-term plan with a strong pipeline of initiatives in order to maintain momentum behind the image we wish to project of this country.
Consistency over time will be important, because the impact and recall of ad hoc initiatives, no matter how bold, will inevitably diminish and lose their potency.
Such a plan would deliver a commercial dividend to the country; it would attract talent to our shores and provide the IDA with further ammunition to win inward investment.
Alan Cox is CEO of Core Media, Ireland's largest media communications group
Sunday Indo Business