Saturday, August 21, 2010

We’re in Top Gear!

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Editor's note: Steven Yu writes about stepping into the shoes of an eJeepney navigator in this month’s Top Gear magazine (August 2010 issue).  Grab a copy of the magazine’s 4th annual green issue now, featuring green, eco-friendly cars.

A Day in the Life: E-motionally enlightened

Behind the wheel of an e-jeepney, Steven Yu develops a better appreciation for our so-called kings of the road.

I have a personal belief that the best way to understand someone else’s perspective is to put myself in that person’s place, and it works.  For example, after I started riding a bicycle and a motorcycle more frequently as a form of alternative transport and environmental consciousness, I became more considerate to fellow cyclists and motorcyclists.  Of course, other cases, such as being considerate to the elderly and handicapped, shouldn’t require firsthand experience - one only needs a sense of decency.  For me, though, personal experience is always the most effective medium for learning.

My assignment on this day will then teach me a new perspective.  For one day in my life, I get to be the king of the road.  Well, sort of.  Instead of the hot, noisy, smoke-belching public-utility vehicles that earned jeepney drivers all over the country a title derived from notoriety rather than royalty, I will be driving an e-jeepney around its “Green Route” within Legaspi Village in Makati.

The e-jeepney is described by its manufacturer, Philippine Utility Vehicles, as an “electric mass-transport vehicle,” and it shares nothing except its seating layout with its antiquated, diesel-fed counterpart.  Its very first use was implemented by the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC), a Quezon City- based NGO directed by former Greenpeace environmental advocate Renato “Red” Constantino, and funded by both the Netherlands-based Stichting Doen Foundation and the local revenues generated from advertising space on the e-jeepneys.  This is in line with the Climate Friendly Cities (CFC) program, which is supported by the Motor Vehicle Parts Manufacturers Association of the Philippines and Makati City, and consists of three components to complete the “green circle”: a charging station/electric –vehicle terminal; a biodigester facility to convert biodegradable household waste into electric power; and the electric vehicles themselves.

To date, two cities have been identified as flagship sites for this technology – our host, Makati, followed recently by Puerto Princesa in Palawan.  Being one of the pioneering partners in the CFC Project, Makati began construction of a biodigester facility in Magallanes last year, but the plant fell victim to typhoon Ondoy’s wrath, delaying its completion.  Puerto Princesa was spared this misfortune, and its biodigester facility is nearing completion.  There are currently 20 e-jeepneys operating within Makati – 10 quietly plying the Legaspi Village loop, and the other 10 doing the same for Salcedo Village.  They are intra-village shuttles, servicing roads off-limits to other public-utility vehicles.

Joining me for my e-jeepney experience is Jerome Palomar, iCSC’s operations head, who familiarizes me with the e-jeepney before I get behind the wheel.  For starters, the e-jeepney does not have the traditional nose or hood because its 5kW electric motor is as small as a beer keg and – since it doesn’t require liquid cooling – is mounted under the passenger-area floor.  It is mated to an ordinary four-speed manual transmission, but because an electric motor can generate maximum torque at zero rpm, shifting through the gears becomes unnecessary.  It will start smoothly in fourth gear, so the only gears used are fourth for moving forward, and reverse.

Jerome tells me that although the 12 batteries powering the e-jeepney look like normal 12-volt asphalt-type 2SM car batteries, they are actually six-volt deep-cycle units developed by Motolite specifically for this application.  Unlike its conventional counterpart, a deep-cycle battery can tolerate up to almost 80-percent discharge while still retaining normal function, making it ideal for electric vehicles.  They have a lifespan of about two years and are all replaced in one go at a cost of P55,000.

With the Magallanes biodigesting facility still offline, the Makati e-jeepneys have to rely on commercial electricity for recharging.  It takes eight hours at 2.5kW for a full recharge, which equates to approximately P160 at current electric rates.  This provides enough power to travel 55km – or roughly 17 times around the 3.2km Legaspi Village loop from 9am to 5:30pm. Unlike gasoline or diesel vehicles, the e-jeepney doesn’t consume any power while sitting in traffic because the motor doesn’t run at all, so running costs are constantly kept low – P2.90/km.  The most frugal diesel vehicles may cost as little as P1.75 to operate, but their emissions eventually make the case for electric alternatives.

As for the reception of regular jeepney drivers to the e-jeepney, they are more fascinated than threatened by it.  After all, at P625,000 per unit, e-jeepneys aren’t cheap to acquire or upgrade to.  Nor will the investment see a quick return, because one of its other benefits is free transport, so companies are encouraged to either advertise on an e-jeepney or “adopt” one to sustain the program.

After a quick briefing, its time for me to drive the e-jeepney around Legaspi Village with a Makati Public Safety Authority officer guiding me.  Setting off takes a little getting used to because the electric motor doesn’t make any noise.  The accelerator is light and, thankfully, requires some travel before the e-jeepney gently gets afoot.  Once under way, though, everything is familiar, but the brakes – in absence of a hydrovac – require more effort to activate.  Ventilation and visibility are great, and it’s surprisingly comfortable – cool, even, because the electric motor doesn’t generate the same heat as a diesel engine does.

Guided to my first designated e-jeepney stop, I delightedly pick up my first passengers, glancing quickly at the rear-view mirror to check if they’re seated before I set off again.  One passenger, Jay Segovia III, tells me: “I just park my car in Glorietta, then ride the e-jeepney going to my office.  I am reducing my carbon monoxide emissions by not using my car.  The e-jeepney is also free, and the driver has a wide knowledge of the area.”

Several stops later, I’m ferrying several passengers and feeling accomplished.  That is, until I hear the words, “Mama, sa tabi lang po.” I’m in between stops, so I have to find the nearest opening to pull aside.  The more my e-jeepney fills up, the more frequently I hear “para,” and it’s rapidly becoming one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.  I never saw the task of a jeepney driver from this perspective before, but having strangers entrust their lives to me – and returning that trust by getting them to their destinations – is both humbling and richly rewarding.

While there are still a lot of undisciplined jeepney drivers, I now imagine that the discomfort, the heat and the pressure to make their boundaries cause them to drive like they do.  But for the handful who do take their simple jobs to heart and drive responsibly, I now have more than just an understanding for them.  I envy them.

And you know what color that makes me.

Scanned images from August 2010 issue of Top Gear.

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