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Part 3: Andrew Grant - The road warrior

With gas selling at just 50 cents a litre, Andrew Grant's co-workers at Yellow Cab thought he was crazy. It was November, 2001, and the Vancouver cabbie had just announced he was replacing his 1998 Toyota Camry with a $33,000 Toyota Prius-a hybrid that combines a combustion engine with a battery-powered motor. "The general philosophy in the cab industry has always been to buy a car that's two to three years old, spend somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000, and run it for three years," says Grant, who retired in 2005 after 20 years at the wheel. "They thought it was absolute foolishness to spend that kind of money on that kind of vehicle."

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Fast-forward a few years and Grant, the world's first hybrid taxi driver, looks pretty smart, what with Vancouver gas prices hitting $1.27 a litre in May. According to Grant-now an executive coach and columnist on average taxi clocks 200 to 300 kilometres per 12-hour shift and burns between 35 and 55 litres of fuel. A hybrid gets about 20 clicks per litre, using 12 to 15 litres. At current gas prices, that can mean savings of at least $20 a shift.

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Grant's fellow cabbies eventually followed his lead, and today, the co-op has more than 60 hybrids in its fleet of 220 cabs, the majority of them owner-operated. Co-op president Surjeet Pandher, who has been driving a Prius since 2005, says that not only does he save money on gas, but on maintenance, as well. Because of the regenerative braking system-which creates less heat and friction, thanks to the electric motor-the brake pads only need to be changed every 200,000 kilometres, compared to every 30,000 in a regular vehicle. "To service the transmission costs less than $100," he adds during a ride in the almost silent cab. That's a savings of $200. All told, Pandher estimates his hybrid saves him $5,000 a year compared to a regular cab. "If it's on the road for three years, I'll save at least $15,000 and make up the difference in initial cost in three years."

And, of course, there's the image boost that comes with driving a Prius. "Our customers appreciate these cars," says Pandher, gesturing toward a display on the dash that tracks the interplay between the engine, battery and electric motor. "For people who are aware of environmental problems, they appreciate it a lot."

As for Grant, Toyota took back his first Prius taxi in 2002, with 332,000 kilometres on the odometer, to test how it was dealing with the wear of constant driving. The company gave Grant a 2003 model in its place. "I wanted to get half a million kilometres on it," he beams. "It just passed 565,000."

Life in the slow lane

In 2006, Toronto's Feel Good Cars Inc. rolled out an electric car that's perfect for beer-store runs and grocery pickups. Just don't expect to get there fast-it has a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour and needs to be recharged every 56 clicks. So far, the ZENN (zero-emission, no-noise) is only available in the U.S., from $12,500 (U.S.). Though our federal government has legalized the use of low-speed vehicles like the ZENN, only B.C. has done so at the provincial level, which means most Canadians can't yet drive them.