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Queens designer retrofits cars for public use

South Ozone Park businessman Michael DiGonis may have found a solution to two transportation problems: handicapped accessibility and dependence on fossil fuels.

DiGonis and his company, Alternative Fuels Technologies Corp., have designed a retrofitted vehicle that not only runs on a combination of gasoline and electric power, but also has a passenger compartment large enough to comfortably seat a person in a wheelchair.

“Hopefully we’re finding small solutions to big problems,” DiGonis says with a shrug and a smile. “It’s a start.”

The company has been located in South Ozone Park for 27 years, but it was only a decade ago that DiGonis decided to attack problems including dependency on foreign fuels, and emissions pollution, he said.

“I feel it’s important that anyone who can contribute to improving the performance of automobiles should offer their services,” DiGonis said.

DiGonis’s contribution – his retrofitted vehicles – are being marketed for public transportation use now, including taxicabs and airport car service companies, he said. He has also been working with the New York State Energy Research and Development Administration to produce the vehicles and get them on New York streets.

DiGonis estimated that the 71,000 New York City taxi cabs registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles use about 1.7 million gallons of gasoline per day. His hybrid vehicles could conserve about 852,000 gallons per day, he said.

“Alternative fuels are a good potential answer to using domestic energy resources to mobilize the public,” he said.

About 20 retrofitted taxis could be seen in New York City as early as next month, DiGonis said. The small fleet will be part of a six-month testing program where the performance of the vehicles and the public reaction to them will be evaluated, he said. The pilot program is waiting for city and state approval, he said.

Aside from a personal commitment to improving vehicle performances, DiGonis said the idea for the cars came from a hole he saw in the public transportation market. DiGonis was struck by a lack of convenient transportation for people in wheelchairs as well as groups of perhaps five people traveling together, he said.

“Since the checker cab went out of the market, there hasn’t been another vehicle roomy enough to seat five comfortably,” he said, adding that minivan taxis do help alleviate this.

DiGonis called on his experience designing endurance competition vehicles to design the retrofits for the Metroking taxis, the brand of car on which he bases his designs. The passenger and driver cabins as well as the powertrain for the vehicle were completely redesigned, he said.

The passenger cabin has a three-person bench across the back and two jump seats attached to the panel that separates the back of the vehicle from the driver’s seat. Between the seats is about four feet of floor space to accommodate handicapped passengers, who will be secured with belts bolted to the frame.

The hybrid engine relies on a combination of a gasoline-powered motor and an electric-powered motor that work together to move the vehicle. The majority of the time the electric motor powers the car, DiGonis said, pulling in more energy from the gasoline motor to climb hills or go faster as needed. The driver’s actions would be the same as if they were in a gasoline-based car, but the hybrid vehicle responds differently by using two computers to control the motors, DiGonis said.

“The two computers live with each other in great harmony and communicate very well,” he said.

The gasoline motor yields a horsepower of about 140 and the electrical motor yields 125, DiGonis said, for a combined horsepower of 265.

“Combined it’s the equivalent of a sportier car,” he said, noting that the performance is equivalent to that of a family sedan. “Any driver that’s not used to driving a special powertrain would not notice the difference unless you told them.”

The car also recharges itself when it is on but not in motion, such as at a stoplight or in traffic, DiGonis said. The energy that would go to acceleration goes to recharge the electric power instead, he said.

Alternative Fuels Technologies hopes to manufacture 3,000 hybrid taxis a year to replace the 3,000 to 5,000 yellow cabs that are retired annually, DiGonis said. The hybrid vehicles are also expected to survive longer than the average yellow cab, he said.

“Taxicabs are probably the most abused vehicles,” DiGonis said. “One of the intentions is for this car to be able to go one million miles with only minor mechanical service.”

Although the cars haven’t been introduced to New Yorkers yet, DiGonis has gotten favorable responses from people who have seen the cars.

“I think people will enjoy riding in these,” he said. “I’m finding people come sit in the cab to look at it and they start having full- fledged conversations for an hour and a half.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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