The future of taxi transport in New York City could look a lot different by 2014 -- though we can guarantee it will still be yellow.

In an unprecedented move, the city will be unifying its iconic taxicab fleet, introducing the first-ever custom-built taxicab designed through a competition dubbed the "Taxi of Tomorrow."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) Chairman David Yassky unveiled the three finalists in the search for the city's new cab in November. The announcement comes three years after the TLC first made public its intention to standardize the vehicle, and nearly a year since the agency issued a request for proposals inviting auto manufacturers and designers to submit their best concepts for the new design.

Ford, Nissan, and Who?

Three finalists -- from Ford, Nissan and newcomer Karsan -- were selected from proposals submitted by seven companies.

Ford's Taxi of Tomorrow (Ford).

Ford's design is based on the Transit Connect van, which is available in the U.S. and was named 2010 North American Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Aside from the advantages of a vehicle that is already in production and available domestically, Ford brings to the table an unmatched wealth of experience in supplying the New York City taxi industry, a TLC spokesperson said. Further, the Transit Connect was approved for taxi use last spring by the city of Boston.

Nissan's Taxi of Tomorrow (Nissan).

Nissan's entry is a compact van that offers the most passenger space of the three, and is based on their NV200 model that was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 2009. It is not currently available in the U.S., but unlike the other finalists, Nissan has stated that it will build a fully electric version of the vehicle, Yassky said.

Karsan's Taxi of Tomorrow (Karsan).

The third finalist is a wildcard. Proposed by Turkish automaker Karsan -- which manufactures cars for Fiat and Hyundai -- the futuristic-looking V1 doesn't even exist yet. The smallest of the three, the V1 offers a glass roof, a wheelchair ramp that can reach the curb and a unique configuration where one passenger faces the others, a flashback to the jump seats of the long-retired Checker Cab. Though the V1 has its advantages, Yassky said the company will have to overcome a lack of experience in producing and selling vehicles in the U.S.

All the designs are based on small vans rather than sedans, and can fit more luggage than most of the existing fleet models. In addition, some of them feature chargers for cell phones and laptops.

The City's Short Timeline

The winning proposal will be announced in early 2011 and a contract finalized by summer. If the city sticks to its schedule, the new taxi will hit the streets by 2013 -- though fall 2014 is considered a hard deadline, Yassky said. The full rollout will take several years, as current vehicles will be replaced as cab owners retire their vehicles -- typically after three to five years of service.

The chosen vehicle will be the only licensed taxicab model allowed in the city for at least 10 years, but the city is not looking for a static vehicle for the full contract period. Rather, it wants a vehicle that can evolve. As such, the manufacturer's proposal must include a plan to deliver either successive generations of vehicles or one vehicle modified over the life of the contract.

Specifications for the new taxicab call for a design that is safe, comfortable, and affordable. Further, it calls for a vehicle that boasts a smaller environmental footprint, with lower emissions and improved fuel economy. A smaller physical footprint is required as well, but one that offers more usable interior room and is universally accessible to all users. The city also wants an iconic design that will identify the new taxi with the Big Apple.

As it is the taxi medallion owners -- not the city -- who purchase the taxis, there is no contract with the city up for grabs. The city is merely negotiating on behalf of the industry as a whole, Yassky said. The winner of the Taxi of Tomorrow contest will earn the exclusive right to supply taxis for the city's fleet of over 13,000 medallion taxis for at least a decade -- a deal potentially worth $1 billion, TLC sources said.

In a city with nearly 8.5 million residents and 45 million annual visitors, the New York taxi fleet transports 240 million taxi passengers per year, and annual taxi fare revenues total about $2.8 billion -- about the same as the annual fare collection for all of the city's extensive mass transit system, according to the TLC.

Death Of The Crown Vic

The current New York City taxi fleet is comprised of 16 different vehicles supported by nine manufacturers, with a mix of sedans, minivans and hybrid SUVs -- none of which were specifically designed to be a taxi. Rather, these vehicles have all been outfitted by third parties, garages and meter shops to conform to TLC's taxicab specifications.

The mainstay of the current fleet is the Ford Crown Victoria, which accounts for about 67 percent of the fleet, according to the TLC. However, Ford is scheduled to stop producing the model in 2011 -- a move that's factored heavily in the City's decision to revamp the taxicab fleet.

"For quite some time, people in the industry have known the Crown Victoria was going to be discontinued, so that's a big part of it," Yassky said. "The other part is that the Crown Victoria -- while it has rendered tremendous service to the industry and to taxi customers for years -- isn't perfect. It's not one of the new breed of fuel-efficient vehicles, it's not accessible to all users, and while the back seat is quite roomy, there are those who feel that the ride isn't as comfortable as other cars," he added.

Though the initiation of the Taxi of Tomorrow competition pre-dates his role as TLC Chairman, Yassky said his predecessor saw the death of the Crown Victoria as "an opportunity for improvement" and decided to get out in front of the inevitable change.

The Next Step

Each of the three finalists has now been asked to address deficiencies the selection committee has identified and to submit a best and final offer.

"Each of these three proposals is promising but, of course, none is perfect," Bloomberg said. "The next step is to ask each company to submit their best and final offers -- both on quality and on price -- so that we can make sure the model is affordable for taxi owners and passengers."

The city is giving the three companies a month to respond, but Bloomberg also pointed out that the city is not obliged to go with any of them.

"If it doesn't meet our needs, then we can start the process all over again, or say we just can't find what we want and come back and visit this at another time in the future," he said.

In the meantime, the TLC has put together a campaign to gauge public opinion, including a survey where New Yorkers can vote for the features they want to see included in the final vehicle design. To incentivize riders, survey participants are entered into a contest to win a year's worth of free taxi rides.

"The City has never before worked with the auto industry to design one taxicab specifically for New York City -- until now," Bloomberg said. "We want New Yorkers to take part in this process and tell us the features they want to see in the Taxi of Tomorrow."