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The London Taxi Company (LTC) on Wednesday restarted production of the famous black cab six months after the business was saved by Chinese car maker Geely back in 2013.
Image: The London Taxi Company (LTC) restarted production of the famous black cab back in 2013, six months after the business was saved by Chinese car maker Geely. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Taxiing Towards a Greener London Cab and The Chinese Firm That Made It Possible

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Image: The London Taxi Company (LTC) restarted production of the famous black cab back in 2013, six months after the business was saved by Chinese car maker Geely. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Geely, the Chinese owner of the famous London black cab, recently launched its new electric model, the TX, onto the streets of London.

Few things are as British as London’s iconic black taxi cab, but these days you would be mistaken. Since 2013 the former London Taxis International (LTI), which manufactured the famous TX range of cabs for 70 years, has actually been owned by Chinese company Geely.

The firm, which also owns Volvo, Lotus and a stake in Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler but is little known in the UK, snapped up LTI in 2013 for £11.4m after it went into receivership. After building a £325m new factory in Coventry to produce a greener cab, the London Electric Vehicle Company – as it is now known – recently launched its electric taxi, the new TX range-extender.

Diesels on the outs in the capital

The cab, which costs £55,599 to buy outright or £170 a week to lease over five years, has around an 80 mile range before it runs out of charge. What’s more, it is the first private hire vehicle to comply with stringent new Transport for London (TfL) regulations demanding that all new taxis must be able to be driven for 30 miles without polluting the capital.

The rules also stipulate that if taxis are also fitted with an engine, it must be petrol and produce no more than 50g of carbon dioxide per kilometre – less than half that emitted by the average new vehicle sold in Europe. The popular TX4 model, also previously manufactured by LTI, was a diesel but new emissions legislation means the last diesel taxi models are due to disappear from London’s streets by 2032.

Inspiration taken from classic cabs

Unlike many other car designs, there have only been a handful of models of the much loved London black cab, as Auto Express notes; the classic Austin FX3 (1949), the 1958 FX4 – remodelled into the 1989 Fairway (both driven by my own father, a retired London cabbie) and the TX1, introduced in 1997.

Designers revisited the iconic Austin FX4 taxi for inspiration. “We had to pull some kind of trick with this so it actually looked like a London cab but at the same time didn’t,” says David Ancona, Geely’s designer told Wired.co.uk.

“You’re kind of dealing with the crown jewels, aren’t you? It’s a vehicle that everyone’s going to have an opinion on.

“We had to try and tap into that timelessness. There’s something quite comforting with the London taxi, so we couldn’t really screw around with that. We had to capture that same feeling.”

‘Wailing’ diesel engine gone

However, liberal use has also been made of Geely’s Volvo technology, including the 1.5 litre Volvo petrol engine. The TX has an electric motor powering the back wheels and a 400 volt lithium-ion battery, but Geely prefers to call the model a ‘range-extender’ rather than a hybrid.

As Auto Express notes, in contrast, older models such as the TX4 were characterised by the “wailing” 2.5 litre diesel engine and “black smoke pouring out of the exhaust” – something I recall well from trips to school in my Dad’s blue taxi with the black vinyl roof.

London cabs generally have a working life of 15 years and TfL’s (the formidable ‘Carriage Office’s’ in my father’s time) strict Conditions of Fitness famously demand that London taxis have a tight turning circle of 25 feet – historically the turning circle outside the Savoy Hotel, just off London’s Strand. They also have to have wheelchair access, a passenger compartment inner height of not less than 1.3m, while windows cannot be more than 25% tinted.

Expansion plans

At peak production, Geely’s new LEVC factory can produce 142 new TX cabs a week. No surprise, then, that the firm also has ambitions to supply its taxis abroad, having already sold 225 to cab operator RMC in Amsterdam, with another order for Norway. Many other European countries, such as Hamburg, which recently banned diesel cars, are also introducing stricter vehicle emissions legislation so there is scope for more business.

Range anxiety

One major stumbling block for London’s cabbies is the low number of rapid recharging points in the capital – just 100, with 51 specifically for London taxis. However, TfL is due to install a further 200 charging points this year.

The average black cab driver covers 120 miles a day and an airport round trip from London to Heathrow or Gatwick could soon wipe out the charge, cabbies fear. However, it’s thought that there are more than 100 new electric TX models already being driven in the capital and, coupled with the petrol engine, the new cab has a total range of 377 miles.

A taxi driver’s view

One of the big tests is what London’s cabbies will make of the new model. My father, and others, have balked at the £56,000 price tag and are concerned about the high cost of replacement batteries, as well as where to recharge the vehicles.

“They’re talking to us about £50,000 [for the new cab],” cabbie Alan Filsell, 61, told the Guardian. “These are about £43,000,” he said of the current diesel model TX4 he drives. “It’s bigger than a mortgage. They [other taxi drivers] reckon if the batteries go wrong, it’ll cost £8,000. I do like the look of it, don’t get me wrong.”

However, the London Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) told Alvexo that having a greener cab will make a big difference to the trade.

“The new electric taxi is a game-changer for the black cab trade,” said Steve McNamara, the LTDA’s general secretary.

“With over 150 electric black cabs already on London’s streets, we are proud to be leading the charge towards a cleaner, greener London.

“However we need the Mayor, TfL and London boroughs to work together and accelerate the roll-out of accessible rapid charging points to support cabbies who switch to the new vehicle.”

The taxi drivers we spoke to who are already driving the new TX had nothing but positive feedback. “It’s a great cab, purpose built for the twenty first century,” says Donny MM. “I can honestly say the driving experience is a world away from the existing diesel cabs plus the economy on fuel is significant, but more importantly the customers absolutely love it.”

Manchester Hire Cab Limited told us via Twitter: “Had mine nearly 5 weeks. Over 3000 miles, and total fuel bills of [just] £75,” while Gary Knopp described it as a “game-changer”.

Meanwhile, Damien Wakeman says: “It will cost you £195 per week on a [leasing plan] and after five years [you can just hand it back and get a new one. Also there’s an advertising company paying £3000 per year so insurance [is] free.”

However, one taxi driver told us that he had decided to wait for the new electric Metrocab instead as he thought it should be cheaper and a better product.

Out-manoeuvring Uber

With Uber drivers’ Toyota Priuses still outnumbering black cab drivers in London two to one, despite TfL’s refusal to grant it a new operating licence, London’s professional cabbies need every edge they can find.

LEVC’s CEO Chris Gubbey thinks his quiet TX taxis, with USB chargers, capacity for six, comfortable seating and onboard wi-fi, combined with a driver with ‘the knowledge’ under his or her belt, will appeal to passengers tiring of Uber.

“The fundamentals of our business are based around a professional driver and a superb product that contributes towards the clean air in the cities,” he told Wired.co.uk.

However, the firm will soon have to grapple with competition from Nissan’s soon-to-be-launched Dynamo taxi and bitter rival Metrocab is also due to start producing zero emission taxis by the end of 2018.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alvexo on the matter.