London raises flag on green taxi rollout

Five manufacturers are planning to launch electric taxis in time for the 2018 start of London’s switchover to zero-emissions vehicles, with hydrogen fuel-cell models expected to follow.

All new taxis licensed from 1 January 2018 must be capable of operating without producing polluting emissions within central London, according to a new policy announced yesterday by the capital’s mayor, Boris Johnson.

The manufacturers claim the taxis – most of which will be battery powered with a range-extending petrol generator – will be cost-competitive with current diesel models once both purchase and running costs are taken into account.

At least two of the companies ­– Ecotive and the Chinese-owned London Taxi Company (LTC) – are examining plans to manufacture the cars in the UK. The other manufactures including Nissan, Turkey’s Karsan, which has worked with designers from the Royal College of Art, and Mercedes, which already produces the commonly seen van-style Vito taxi.

‘We’re not looking at having a price premium; we want to be competitive so we can enter the market,’ said Sheban Siddiqi, business development manager for Ecotive, which is developing the range-extended electric Metrocab taxi in partnership with technology consultancy Frazer-Nash.

He claimed that current tests showed the Metrocab could save taxi drivers £40 a day based on the cost of electricity for two battery recharges combined with reduced petrol use.

But Ivan Kovlar, general secretary of the London Motor Cab Proprietor’s Association said any addition to the upfront cost of purchasing a taxi, which is currently around £30,000, would be difficult for drivers to shoulder.

‘The last time they raised emissions standards it cost the industry £60m for 10,000 new vehicles,’ he told The Engineer. London taxis must currently be replaced after 15 years’ use and around 1,500 are renewed every year.

In response, Garrett Emmerson, chief operating officer of Transport for London’s (TfL) surface transport division said the organisation was speaking to the government’s Office for Low-Emission Vehicles and the new Green Investment Bank about the possibility of subsidies or loans.

The new policy will see taxis required to operate in a zero-emissions mode in a yet-to-be-defined area of central London, but left free to use hybrid or range-extending petrol engines outside this area.

Emmerson said that although this would help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it was primarily about improving air quality in the capital, which has repeatedly failed to meet EU pollution targets.

‘The vast majority of taxi journeys are in central London so it will quite a high proportion that are zero-emission,’ he told The Engineer.

‘The key thing is it’s a small number of vehicles – 22,000 out of four million vehicles in London – but in central London they’re a big proportion of the traffic. So the air quality impact you get is proportionately greater.’

The London Taxi Company and Intelligent Energy are trialling five hydrogen fuel-cell cabs in the capital.

LTC is also developing a hydrogen fuel-cell taxi in partnership with UK firm Intelligent Energy. They are currently trialling five models in the Capital and are due to be joined by a Hyundai fuel-cell taxi.

The firms are now attempting to redesign the vehicle to bring manufacturing costs down to a more competitive level, although the taxi purchase cost is still likely to be above current prices.

This involves creating a bespoke model that better accommodates the powertrain and shrinking and modularising the fuel-cell itself. In particular, they are working with Dyson to improve the fuel-cell’s air-cooling intake.

Intelligent Energy’s vice-president of business development, Dennis Hayter, said the firm’s ambition was to manufacture its fuel cells in the UK so it could better control the supply chain.

‘We may licence others outside of the UK to manufacture as well,’ he told The Engineer. ‘If we were to set up an agreement with [LTC owner] Geely to supply fuel cells for all of their vehicles, they would probably want to do that in China.’

The 2018 change will be followed by the 2020 introduction of an “ultra-low emissions zone”, which will widen restrictions to all types of automotive vehicle, although whether or not this will only apply to newly purchased vehicles has yet to be decided.

But Emmerson said there were no plans to enforce emissions restrictions outside the central zone, and that TfL had no plans to prescribe what kind of powertrain – battery, hybrid or fuel-cell – drivers were required to use.

As well as upfront costs and vehicle range, the competition between hydrogen and electric vehicles will be influenced by refuelling options. London already has over 1,300 electric charge points, including a small number of rapid charging stations, and French firm IER plans to increase this number to 6,000 by 2018.

But Hayter argued that expanding the number of hydrogen refilling stations from the current two to between 25 and 30 would comfortably serve London’s entire taxi fleet because refuelling takes only a few minutes.

‘The objective is to have 50 per cent green hydrogen from a renewable source (either wind or waste) by 2020,’ he said. ‘Could you have green electricity by then? I don’t think so.’

But Frazer-Nash may have a partial solution to that problem: a solar-powered charing station, which the firm claims can provide enough regular charges in a month for a taxi to cover almost 1,500km (930 miles).