It’s normally a good day for a taxi driver when a passenger orders a long ride. For John Peñafiel, who works as a taxi driver at Guayaquil’s international airport in Ecuador, a run to Montañita, a tourist resort 180 kilometers away, more than doubles his usual earnings. Compared to what he makes by staying in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, longer trips can increase his daily income by up to 70%, Peñafiel told Rest of World. 

When a passenger asks to go to Montañita, a taxi driver with a gas-powered car would usually accept the ride immediately. But Peñafiel is part of Guayaquil’s new wave: He drives an electric vehicle. So, before accepting the trip, he checked how much charge he had left — 240 kilometers, said the dashboard. Peñafiel, still new at driving an EV, thought it’d be enough for the ride to Montañita and back to the only mass charging station for electric cars in Guayaquil, locally known as an electrolinera.

He was dismayed to find he’d miscalculated. “I turned around [after dropping the passenger off] and halfway back, the battery ran out,” he said. “I had to pay to get towed.”

Peñafiel has been a taxi driver for over 35 years, but in the last four months, he has had to adapt to electrification. Every day, he goes to his father’s house after work to charge his EV while he sleeps. He can’t do it at home since he doesn’t have the appropriate voltage at his place. Things aren’t much easier during the day: Peñafiel’s trips from the airport are contingent on his distance from the only point in the city where he can charge his Chinese-made Dongfeng EV.

In the last three years, the number of electric taxis in Guayaquil has increased, albeit slowly. The limited numbers may seem unusual given the government’s generous financing options for taxi drivers to make the switch to electric, but growth has stalled because of drivers’ worries about poor charging infrastructure in the city. Rest of World spoke to six taxi drivers; Jorge Burbano, the country’s business manager at BYD, the Chinese EV brand that has become the most popular among taxi drivers; and Xavier Salgado, an environmentalist working on mobility in Guayaquil. All expressed doubts that the city’s method of transitioning to EVs was sustainable, even in the short run. Subsidies for EVs, they agreed, are not enough — Guayaquil needs investment in EV infrastructure and regulation, particularly around charging stations. (Terpel, a gas and charging-station company, partnered with automobile manufacturer Kia last April to open a fast-charging EV station, and is committed to setting up nine other fast-charging electrolineras in the country.)

Guayaquil is a port city where the heat and humidity can be stifling. Its streets aren’t very pedestrian-friendly and its mass transit system is difficult to navigate. Soil conditions make it impossible to think of building a subway. Crime is also a growing concern. All this has contributed to making Guayaquil particularly dependent on taxis. Yet, despite the passengers’ ever-growing need for taxis and drivers’ interest in making the most of the EV subsidies, it is “difficult to use an EV given the current state of charging points,” Burbano told Rest of World.

Guayaquil was not the first Ecuadorian city to lean into electric taxis. Loja, a small town in the south of the country, has had a fleet of EV taxis since 2017, which grew to more than 50 in just two years. Guayaquil saw Loja’s experiment and launched its own, more ambitious pilot. In 2019, the mayor’s office set up incentives, including a discount of up to $4,000 on the purchase of an EV, a reduction in household electricity rates for owners of electric taxis, and a priority pass when registering at the Guayaquil Transit Agency (ATM).

But, as soon as they rolled out of their driveways, EV taxi drivers ran into problems, Peñafiel claimed. Guayuaquil lacks a network of charging stations, especially because each EV brand has its own unique charging cable. This means there are even fewer mass charging stations than it would initially seem, with each company’s one or two stations catering only to their own brand of car. Meanwhile, charging at home or at a small, privately owned charging station is also not much of an option during a busy working day. Not only is charging outside of a mass charging station twice as slow, without the regulation needed to standardize voltage and pricing, there is little incentive for small entrepreneurs to put up individual charging stops.

Guayaquil’s charging infrastructure is caught in the middle. Peñafiel said “the company [Dongfeng] told us EV drivers that if people buy more cars, it will install more charging stations.” Rest of World reached out to Dongfeng for comment but received no answer. But that condition puts Guayaquil’s EV transition in a difficult place: As long as there aren’t more EVs on the streets, it is not worth adding more charging stations, but if the charging stations remain sparse, there is less of an incentive to switch to an electric car.

Priscila Chalán, who owns two taxis, told Rest of World she can only use the BYD charging station, because it is the only one in the city with multiple, rapid charging points. “I have heard stories about fights breaking out at another EV station with only one rapid charging outlet, because [the taxi drivers] are in a hurry to plug in and get moving.”

“Congratulations to those who take jobs outside of Guayaquil, but it’s not for me — that’s how I avoid issues with running out of battery.”

Despite the issues, all the EV taxi drivers that Rest of World spoke to were happy to have made the switch. None said they would return to driving an internal combustion vehicle. Taxi drivers still using gas-powered cars said they were interested in making the switch, but were deterred by the issues their EV counterparts face.

“On the one hand, it’s great to spend less on gasoline,” Eddy Muñoz, a driver who had considered switching to an electric taxi, told Rest of World. “But where do I charge my car?”

However, Burbano believes that efforts should continue to focus on the EV supply side. “I proposed that the Ministry of Energy invest in charging stations but, really, they need to incentivize the broader adoption of EVs so that stations can become profitable … At the end of the day, they’re private businesses and private businesses rely on making money.” An ATM spokesperson told Rest of World that charging stations were primarily a private sector endeavor.

Until that happens, though, EV taxis are largely confined to the greater ​​Guayaquil area. “I don’t travel outside the city,” Vinicio Merchán, a taxi driver who made the switch to an electric car more than a year ago, told Rest of World. “Congratulations to those who take jobs outside of Guayaquil, but it’s not for me — that’s how I avoid issues with running out of battery.”

But even within the city, route planning still has to be thorough. Given the scarcity of charging stations, electric taxi drivers must consider their trips carefully — not only to make sure they don’t run out of battery but to avoid having to go load up at an overly expensive station. “Once, an EV colleague was charged $12 for a quick charge,” Peñafiel said. “You pay $4 or $5 normally for that service.” This is still much cheaper than the average $20 cost of refueling a car with gas for equivalent mileage, but much more expensive than charging an EV at home, which can cost as little as $3 with government subsidies.

To avoid price gouging by small charging stations, Merchán said he shares information about new charging points with other drivers of the same EV brand via WhatsApp. However, unlike traditional gas stations, some electric stations do not operate 24 hours a day. Merchán said adjusting to not having a place to charge his vehicle after 6 p.m. has been one of the main changes in his routine.

Even so, the electric taxi drivers manage: planning their workdays to the minute, carrying an assortment of chargers and adapters in case they end up stranded with a dead battery, and often relying on the kindness of strangers, as Peñafiel did in early March. Once again, a passenger had asked to go from Guayaquil airport to Montañita. Having been stranded once before, Peñafiel decided it’d be best if he went to a rapid charging station first. It would add 40 minutes to the trip, he warned the passenger.

“Luckily, this customer wasn’t in a rush and had a coffee while I went to get my adapter from my dad’s house and charged the vehicle,” he said. “I explained that it was an electric vehicle and he understood, but if he’d been in a rush, I would have lost that gig — I’m just not willing to risk it again, though.”