Author: Senay Boztas
Posted on: The Guardian | November 28th, 2017
When John Dowd drives along the streets of London, schoolboys offer fist bumps and people wind down their windows to talk.
This 48-year-old from Sudbury, north-west London, isn’t part of some reality television show: he’s test-driving a new, electric version of the black cab.
From the beginning of 2018, new licensed taxis in London must be “zero emissions capable”, able to drive on electric power for at least 48km and with limited emissions.
Vehicle manufacturer the London Taxi Company is rebranding as the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) and asking several London cabbies to test six of its electric and petrol-powered TX taxis on the roads.
Dowd is already a fan. “There’s no noise, stress or fuss,” he says. “It moves quicker than my TX4 Euro 6 diesel, there’s no lag, the suspension and brakes are better, and it will save £100 a week on fuel. I can’t wait to own my own!”
Having already sold 225 electric taxis to the Dutch, and opened a new manufacturing plant in Coventry, LEVC is expecting deliveries to London within weeks. The cabs are priced at £55,599, costing drivers £177 per week for five years. The mayor of London and Transport for London (TfL) have grants of £42m – up to £5,000 a vehicle – for cabbies to de-license and retire their diesel black cabs, while a government “plug-in grant” offers up to £8,000, depending on vehicle size, towards buying electric/hybrid vehicles.
London is aiming for “the greenest taxi fleet in the world”, with mayor Sadiq Khan acknowledging the city’s “filthy air is a health crisis that needs urgent action”. It is thought to cause nearly 9,500 premature deaths each year, while the UK has been in breach of European law regarding air pollution – notes the Lancet – since 2010.
Taxis contribute to 16% of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 26% of tiny particles (PM) in London’s air, and TfL believes a “greener fleet” could reduce NOx emissions by almost half in the centre of the city. The mayor’s transport strategy, published in June, aims for all black cabs and private-hire taxis to be “zero emission capable” by 2033 and the entire transport system to be zero emission by 2050.
To make this possible, there are TfL/government grants of £18m to install 75 rapid charging points that load up vehicles in 30 minutes by the end of 2017, and up to £300,000 for 25 London boroughs to put in on-street charging points.
But some people see problems already, including Melanie Shufflebotham, director of charger map service Zap-Map.“The first issue is there’s not enough rapid chargers in London: it’s essential that there’s a robust, rapid-charging network for the taxi service to work,” she says. “Greater London, overall [has] 1,600 different devices, of which only around 40 are rapid chargers. Non-rapid chargers are fine for destinations, if you’re doing a bit of shopping, but when you’re on a journey, you need a rapid charger.”
Private charge station operators are busy too, but there’s a “long lead time” to get a site, ensure sufficient electricity and install charge points. It’s also important, Shufflebotham adds, for drivers to see availability and be able to pay whoever owns the charger easily – points raised in the current automated and electric vehicles bill.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, says that this infrastructure problem may put a spoke in the wheel. “We’ve all known these cabs are coming for the last two years, the first ones are appearing and we have three rapid-charge points within six miles of Charing Cross – it’s an absolute disgrace,” he says.
“The public is going to jump on the electric bandwagon as the result of seeing us doing it. Unfortunately, we and commercial vehicles are going to be hindered, delayed and prevented from mass adoption because of the lack of charging infrastructure.”
Nevertheless, London is one of 20 global cities leading on electric vehicles according to a new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Nic Lutsey, director of ICCT electric vehicle and fuels work, says the approach to taxis is key: “Government fleets, taxis, car-sharing [and] ride-hailing … help ramp up volume and increase the visibility for the new technology.”
So how does it work elsewhere? Amsterdam is aiming to be zero emissions by 2025, when the Dutch government may ban new diesel and petrol cars. Abdeluheb Choho, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor for sustainability, says they first negotiated with taxi companies while investing in charging infrastructure and electric subsidies, then mandated electric-only cabs in popular ranks.
“As of 1 January 2018, all high-polluting taxis are no longer allowed,” he says. “The taxi organisations themselves signed up to the agreement. We took care of the charging infrastructure of 2,600 charging points within the city, seven to nine of them high-speed. What Amsterdam did has been followed all over the world.”
Norway has the world’s largest market share for electric cars, thanks to generous tax perks, and European Green Capital 2019 Oslo, sees an important role for taxis. Vice-mayor for environment and transport Lan Marie Berg says the city has about 2,000, which travel 250km a day, but “are idling a lot of the time”. The aim is to make all taxis zero emission by 2022, installing 500 semi-fast chargers a year, particularly at ranks. “Perhaps the most important thing we have done in Oslo is to put in place a ‘climate budget as part of our annual fiscal budget,” she says.
In countries with poor electricity supply but abundant alternative energy, electric cabs make even more sense. Sanjay Krishnan’s Lithium electric taxi company has 400 cabs in Bangalore and Delhi, and reckons that India might leapfrog hybrid vehicles. “Electric vehicles cost twice as much as a diesel hatchback, but running costs are an eighth, so our prices are 10% to 30% lower,” he says. And serving clients, such as Tesco, Accenture and Dell, means avoiding charging problems too. “Although there’s power for an average six hours a day outside Delhi and Mumbai, all our charging infrastructure is at 24/7 client sites, and most of them use hydroelectric.”
Prof Frank Kelly, chair in environmental health at King’s College London, has called for fewer cars in cities, not just cleaner ones. “Increasingly, a larger proportion of particulate pollution from vehicles arises from brake, tyre and road wear rather than the tailpipe,” he says. “Electric vehicles eliminate tailpipe and, to a large extent, brake wear emissions, but not the other sources. If we simply replace all fossil-fuelled vehicles in cities with electric ones, then we will still have a particulate problem.”
Some people will always want a cab service, though. Just as the horse-drawn cart was eclipsed by motorised vehicles, McNamara believes the near future is electric: “It’s not Star Trek technology, it’s here, and the early adopters are going to be very busy.”