As the 2017 IAA demonstrated, electrification is a megatrend which OEMs hope will soon create appeal for customers beyond environmentally conscious drivers looking to make a lifestyle change. This could include fleet owners, for whom the bottom line matters most, and among the early adopters in this market is the growing number of mobility service operators. With several cities proposing bans on fossil fuel-burning vehicles, forward-thinking operators and drivers are now making moves to decrease their dependence on diesel and gasoline.
This includes modern mobility services. Among the numerous headlines involving Uber in 2017, one outlined its vision to have all London drivers in electric and gasoline hybrid models by 2020 (assuming operations continue in the capital), and all UK drivers by 2022. The company will offer drivers £5,000 (US$6,590) in assistance to switch to qualifying vehicles. This pre-empts the introduction of London’s ultra-low emission standards, which come into effect in the existing congestion charging zone in September 2020. Diesel passenger vehicles will need to meet Euro 6 standards, whilst gasoline vehicles will need to meet Euro 4, or else pay a charge.
But along with private hire services, the traditional hire-cab sector is also making moves. The manufacturer of one of the world’s most recognisable taxis – the black Hackney Carriage – is rebranding itself; as of 2017, the London Taxi Company, established in 1899 and now owned by Chinese OEM Geely, goes by the name London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC). The name change followed the March opening of the company’s new manufacturing facility in Coventry, England, which builds the new TX1 model, slated for delivery in the British capital before the end of 2017.
Converting any conventional powertrain vehicle into an electric one presents a long list of difficulties, whereas if you start from scratch, you know exactly what’s required
The TX1 is a series hybrid, which means that unlike a parallel hybrid, in which an electric motor and combustion engine can both drive the wheels, the engine in the TX1 serves as range extender to charge and maintain the battery. This brings CO2 emissions to under 50g/km, says LEVC Chief Executive Chris Gubbey, and only when the engine is running. Drivers can operate in full electric mode once inside the city’s low emissions zone, and switch to range-extended mode when commuting, or taking customers on longer trips such as airport transfers.
Building an electric taxi cab comes with its own unique challenges. As Gubbey explains, whilst the TX1 looks like a traditional London Hackney Cab, it is for the most part an entirely new vehicle, and any resemblance is a sleight of hand on the part of LEVC’s design team. “Converting any conventional powertrain vehicle into an electric one presents a long list of difficulties, whereas if you start from scratch, you know exactly what’s required,” he says. “It is more expensive, but far more efficient and straightforward.”
For example, he says, building a new vehicle from the ground up allowed for use of a bonded aluminium body. Weight is the biggest challenge for any electric vehicle, but particularly for taxis which often carry full loads of people. LEVC, says Gubbey, has drawn on expertise from UK-based players such as Lotus and McLaren. “Light-weighting this type of body structure is an area where British engineers have an edge, and we’ve been able to attract them,” says Gubbey.
This is all about putting passengers in the back and giving them a comfortable trip. There’s a balance to be struck
Taxis also operate in dense, often congested conditions, involving frequent stop-start driving. This creates plentiful opportunities for regenerative braking. Some individual EV drivers have their regeneration tuned harshly, such that the vehicle virtually brakes once a driver steps off the accelerator, allowing for maximum regeneration. However, says Gubbey, this is unlikely to be acceptable for taxi customers, who expect a smooth ride.
“We do not use a harsh tuning,” he says. “Once drivers get used the model, there’s potential to step it up, but initially we need to recognise that this is all about putting passengers in the back and giving them a comfortable trip. There’s a balance to be struck.”
Gubbey believes a 20 to 30-minute charging session on a 22 kilowatt rapid charger could provide the TX1 with all the range the average cab driver would need to complete a day’s work cycle. This, combined with home-charging, he says, should be enough to ease fears around range anxiety, but work remains to be done to quell concerns around charger availability.
By 2020, we are expecting at least 50% of models to be exported, and the UK is a good hub for this
The company is working closely with Transport for London (TfL). By the end of 2017, TfL has targets to install 75 taxi-dedicated rapid chargers, 150 by the end of 2018, and 300 by 2020. Chargers would be spread throughout the city, with hotspots receiving particular attention. Five rapid chargers have also appeared at Heathrow airport, an example of the continued growth of low-carbon technology for travel between city centres and transport hubs.
The London Taxi Company has served other global markets in limited volumes for some time, but LEVC has plans for a greater international rollout. Gubbey has in his sights five key markets: Amsterdam, Oslo, Berlin, Paris and Barcelona. The major advantage of the TX1, he says, is that it fits emerging requirements in markets around the world. “Every major city has the same problem,” he argues, “and it’s almost as if the whole world has woken up at once.” Along with city bans, several states, such as China, France and the UK, have announced long-term blanket bans on the sale of fossil-fuel burning vehicles.
The company has already sold 225 models in Amsterdam, which Gubbey describes as a huge vote of confidence. “By 2020, we are expecting at least 50% of models to be exported, and the UK is a good hub for this,” says Gubbey. However, he adds, “Brexit admittedly changes things. Our chairman has already given reassurances of the UK’s importance, and our position falls in line with the (UK automotive industry trade body) SMMT in that we want zero tariffs and free movement. It could be painful if things go any other way, but regardless, we’ve put a huge amount of investment into this and we will make it work.”
This article appeared in the Q4 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.