Hey, Mac! No Smoking!

WHEN PABLO OCAMPO, A VETERAN New York City cabdriver, traded in his old yellow taxi for a new one last year, he joined the ranks of the motor-vehicle vanguard. After reading an article extolling natural-gas power as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to gasoline, he had his new cab converted to run on the alternative fuel. A year later his fuel bill has dropped by $150 a month and his mechanic marvels at how clean his oil is. Says the happy cabby: "Natural gas keeps the car running very clean, very smooth."

Grimy, smelly New York is no one's idea of an environmental paradise. But lately the city has become one giant test track for cleaner cars. The city's streets are already home to a fleet of 3,000 natural-gas vehicles owned by the city and local utilities. Now the environmentally correct car crowd has trained its sights on New York's 19,,053 yellow cabs, which are blamed for 40 percent of the city's air pollution. For car companies testing new technologies, taxis make ideal guinea pigs because they rack up lots of punishing miles on potholed city streets. For city dwellers, cleaner cabs means less air pollution, and the cabs expose lots of passengers to a fuel that could be a big part of our automotive future. The city government is pressing drivers to make the switch. The biggest carrot: new rules allow cabdrivers who buy natural-gas taxis to keep them in service two extra years. If that tempts drivers to buy, Ford Motor Co. is ready to sell: last month it began offering its Crown Victoria factory equipped to run on natural gas. This fuel may lack the futuristic appeal noiseless electricity, but for heavier vehicles like taxis, natural gas is becoming the alternate fuel of choice. "Electric vehicles are sexier in most people's eyes," says Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal. "But one technology isn't better than another--they just address the problem in different ways."

While everyone favors clean air, it's basic economics that's driven 150 Big Apple taxi owners toward natural gas. The fuel is up to 40 percent cheaper than traditional gasoline, and $9,000 in subsidies from government and Ford makes the natural-gas Crown Vic the same price as the $23,000 gasoline version. Although the car's engine gets some tweaks to handle the nonliquid fuel, the big change is in the trunk: half the compartment is taken up by bulky tanks that store the pressurized gas. Experts insist that the tanks are safe--Ford has dropped them five stories without damage--but the junior-size trunk means this taxi isn't for everyone. Says Ford marketing specialist Beth Ardisana: "If your main mission in life is picking up people at Kennedy Airport who've been on an overseas trip, it's going to be an issue."

Cabbies don't mind the lost luggage space--their big problem is finding a place to fill the tank. Brooklyn Union Gas has put up 13 natural-gas filling stations around the city. But the bulk of New York's cabs are owned by big fleets that do all their gas-pumping at company headquarters, not the local Mobil, and changing their fueling stations to natural gas could cost $250,000 or more. So far, they're not buying. "I'd like somebody who has a reasonable brain in his head to show me how I'm going to fuel these cars," complains Ron Stoppelman of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board. But drivers like Ocampo have already found a hidden advantage to driving with natural gas: it makes passengers feel like do-gooders. "They say, 'Oh, clean air. Very good'," Ocampo says. "You have a smiling customer." And as any cabby knows, smiling customers give bigger tips.