The iconic black cab is as much a part of London’s structure as the red Route Master busses and Tower Bridge. And about as British as fish-n-chips and a pint at the local pub. But while it has become part of stereotypical London life, it isn’t all that environmentally friendly.
While the Greater London Assembly has become increasingly strict about the emissions of the black cab, it has never required owner operators to own a vehicle that is completely zero emission. But from 2018, every new cab licensed for use as an official London Hackney Carriage (black cab to most of us) will need to be capable of zero-emissions operation. By 2020, only zero-emissions capable cabs will be allowed to even register as London cabs.
And that explains why Chinese automaker Geely — which happens to own both Volvo cars and Coventry-based London Taxi Company — announced last week that it plans to issue bonds worth £276 million ($400 million) to fund the development of a brand-new plug-in hybrid taxi cab called the TX-5. Designed with the heritage of the iconic black cab in mind, Geely hopes it will be on the streets of London in time for the 2018 deadline.
But before we examine what the future of the London Cab might be like — at least according to Geely — we think it’s worth having a quick history lesson first.
Back when Austin introduced the FX-4 Taxi it did not at first glance seem likely to be the vehicle that would become synonymous with London. Sporting a dirty 2.0-liter diesel engine, a separate chassis and only independent front suspension it was hardly world-on-fire engineering. But it was phenomenally solid, and its Ackermann steering geometry allowed the car to make U-turns in just 7.6m (25 ft), a requirement for the narrow roads of London. It turned into an impressive hit.
That 1958 design lasted, with minor tweaks and occasional new engines, until 1997 when London Taxis International – the design’s final owner – retired the by now beloved car. By that time, the London Taxi wasn’t just known for its iconic curves, it was also known to be a car with a filthy exhaust. And by 2006, Transport for London, the organization responsible for the “Public Carriage Office”, enacted regulations requiring the remaining fleet to be cleaned up. Despite the final iteration having a much improved Nissan diesel engine, many older vehicles had remained on the road that had to be retrospectively fitted with emissions systems to just meet even the Euro 3 regulations.
Taxi drivers live in their vehicles, and are beholden to them for their living, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they were reluctant to part with their reliable steeds, no matter how dirty they were. Not only that, but as a niche vehicle, taxis are remarkably expensive. And so they’ve stuck around, with old taxis racking up insane mileage before finally being consigned to scrap.
So it turns out it’s incredibly hard to get greener, cleaner taxis into London. And taxi drivers, it also turns out, have strong opinions. Who knew?
It is into this challenging market place that the TX-5 will make its entry — built on a platform intended to enable the production of seven different vehicles on a shared, hybrid-electric drivetrain. The London Taxi Company is holding its cards close to its corporate chest, but did indicate that since the average taxi driver covers between 150-miles and 200 miles during the day, drivers should have to fill up no more than once a day utilizing the TX-5’s range-extended drivetrain. Sadly, there’s little other information to go on. Or so it might seem. Luckily for us however, there’s another vehicle from the seven vehicle lineup about which a bit more is known.
The Emerald T-001, which shares the TX-5’s aluminium chassis and powertrain, gives us a little more insight into the potential capabilities of the TX-5. With a reported 66 mile all-electric range from a smallish 25 kilowatt-hour battery, the T-001 reportedly manages 342 miles in range-extended mode. Impressively, the T-001 also has a carrying capacity of 1.4 tonnes, and it will debut with both short-wheelbase and long-wheelbase form factors potentially making it an excellent replacement for all those white Transit vans that currently cover most city streets. Autocar speculated that a minibus derivative is also a high probability, although Geely, LTC’s parent company, hasn’t confirmed that. Given the shared underpinnings it does seem highly likely that, although the load capacity may well be a smidge lower, a 5 or 6 seat Taxi with a 66 mile all-electric range will be appearing in 2017.
Commenting to Autocar that London’s notoriously picky cabbies have been “very very enthusiastic” and that the company can’t wait to “take the green initiative”, LTC’s CEO Peter Johansen also explained that a range extended model was required because of London’s inadequate stock of fast-chargers, but it also seems likely that this is a step that will help the TX-5’s planned journey overseas.
Whilst LTC have traditionally had few exports, their Chinese owners Geely are keen for them to build electric taxis and ICE taxis – and indeed other vehicles – abroad. At least 1000 of LTC’s current TX-4s are going to Australia over the next 5 years following an agreement signed back in March — and with LTC’s avowed aim of spreading the London Taxi love across the globe the potentially ultra-efficient TX-5 may well be a popular candidate for other cities struggling with pollution.
Having received £46.5 million from the UK Government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre to develop zero emission vehicles, and with Geely pouring in £250 million to build a new production facility in Coventry, the immediate future certainly looks bright for London’s iconic taxi, despite challenges from Uber, Lyft and the incipient onslaught of self-driving vehicles.
In the longer term, LTC and Geely are going to have to add self-driving to that list of capabilities though, because whilst in London the taxi driver’s ‘knowledge’ may take you via routes and places that are well beyond the knowledge of current self-driving vehicles, outside London, the minicab is king. And many of those could be replaced with a, frankly often more knowledgeable, search-engine-powered self driving GPS. Indeed, once self-driving capabilities have become commonplace it’s likely that self-driving taxis will bring an end to the traditional taxi driver.
But in the mean-time, anything that cleans up those particulate chugging taxis has got to be a good thing. Of course, the TX-5 isn’t alone — Metrocab unveiled their range extended PHEV cab back in 2014 — so LTC’s TX-5, whilst it has name brand recognition, had better be extremely reliable when it hits the streets.
Do you think that a range extender is a requirement for LTC’s new Taxi? Or should they have plumped for more battery storage and 100% Electric? And will it be enough to hold off the onslaught of self-driving cars a little longer? Let us know in the Comments below.
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