It’s well known that London has a pollution problem. After just one month of this year, the capital had already smashed pollution limits on several of its busiest roads. Without action, we’re at risk of finding ourselves on the fast train to Beijing-like conditions, calling at smog, 40,000 early deaths and carbon central.
Luckily, the Mayor is doing something about it. At the start of the year, new rules were introduced saying that all new licensed taxis must be “capable” of driving with zero emissions for at least 30 miles. In other words, they must be at least a hybrid. And as time goes on, these rules are only likely to get tougher.
So what should cabbies drive? One company hoping that drivers will choose their vehicle is the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC), which was born in 2013 out of the ashes of the old London Taxi Company, and it recently launched a new hybrid cab, known as the TX. And most importantly, they were willing to let me have a go.
The TX has a pure EV range of 80 miles, and if you don’t mind burning fossil fuels, the “range extender” (polite name for “internal combustion engine”) can boost it up to what the company says is 377 miles. The cabbie has the choice of which mode to choose from - or can let the car intelligently choose whether to use electricity or petrol, depending on circumstances (for example, if it detects the car blitzing it down the motorway for an airport trip, the petrol engine will kick in, whereas if you’re stuck in traffic on Euston Road, it’ll stick to electricity).
What’s important though is how LEVC think the new taxi will fit into the working lives of its drivers: Though it will set cabbies back around £55-57,000 to buy outright, around £10,000 more than the Mercedes Veto, the hope is that drivers will realise that in the long run it could save them money, as they won’t have to keep fuelling up.
According to the company, the typical cabbie might drive around 120 miles per day - including their commute into the city. Assuming they charge up at home overnight, and can get plugged into a rapid charger at lunch (there are currently 51 taxi specific rapid chargers in the capital), they will only need to kill the planet for a small part of their day. And perhaps more importantly, it means they could save around £100 a week on fuel.
Crucially, it appears that the TX should be relatively easy to charge up, even though there still isn’t as much EV infrastructure as there is for petrol vehicles: The new vehicle supports CCS Type 2 rapid charging at a wide range of speeds (from a 3kW 3-pin plugged charge to a 50kW rapid charger). There’s also a built in Chademo charger too, so it can share infrastructure with the likes of the new Nissan Leaf.
The service frequency with the new cab is also better for the drivers: As the TX has fewer moving parts, it will only need servicing every 25,000 miles rather than every 12,000 - meaning less time wasted with the car in the garage, and more time on the road earning cash. Maintenance is supposedly easier too - as, for example, the front and back bumpers have been designed as panels that can be easily removed and replaced, knowing that these are the parts of the vehicle most likely to suffer damage.
Despite the EV capabilities though, the new cab ultimately looks like… well, a normal black cab. And this is deliberate - LEVC still want passengers to know what to look for when flagging a taxi down in the street. But looks can be deceiving: In addition to the EV tech, lots has changed under the hood. Perhaps most importantly, the new vehicle is much lighter - instead of being made from solid steel, the vast majority of the car’s frame is made from an aluminium composite, having apparently borrowed construction techniques from the likes of McLaren and Aston Martin. Though sadly, these cabs will be limited to 83mph because of the spoilsports/entirely sensible health and safety mandarins in City Hall.
Though there is also good news: The new cab does still has what is arguably the black cab’s best feature: The ultra-tight turning circle, for extra manoeuvrability in traffic.
But why not just use a normal car, like Uber drivers? LEVC believes that cabs and their requirements are different to normal drivers.
For example - unlike you and I, cabbies typically spend somewhere between eight and ten hours every single day in their vehicles, so they need a setup that is designed to accommodate long stretches behind the wheel. There are also numerous accessibility features required in order to get a license, so cabs need to be have an induction loop for hard of hearing passengers, and a large, flat floor in order to accommodate wheelchair users.
So when it came to designing a new cab, LEVC started by putting together a “shopping list” of features that cabbies would like by talking to the drivers themselves, as well as passengers and others. These talks allowed them to install some much needed functionality to the cabs.
Next to the steering wheel and angled towards the driver is a modern iPad-style touchscreen interface to control many of the car’s functions. It is here the driver can control the new DAB digital radio - which was apparently a much requested feature from cabbies, presumably so they can have the choice of listening to both LBC and Talk Radio. (While there’s no support for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto yet, these could conceivably be added in a software update, I’m told.)
It can also connect to the driver’s phone, for greater ease taking calls like in all modern cars. And there are a couple of features non-cabbies might never realise could be vital - such as the ability to view the rear camera at any time, and not just when reversing, so cabbies can keep an eye on any suspicious behaviour around their vehicle.
Perhaps the most surprising addition though is something that the cabbies aren’t supposed to need: GPS. Yep, drivers in this new vehicle will be able to forget “The Knowledge”, and let satellites guide them instead - though as far as I’m aware, there won’t be a function to block the GPS navigation from sending drivers south of the river. According to the company, GPS was one of the most requested features - not because cabbies want to do away with learning London’s roads, but because of the ability to get real time traffic updates. The theory is that if they know a road is blocked, or where there is traffic, they can still deploy their encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s shortcuts to get passengers to their destinations quicker.
All of these features on the display can also be controlled through voice commands, which appears to work just as well as the likes of Siri and so on.
There are plenty of other high-tech features built into the TX too. Like with many modern cars, there’s a camera up front that will scan road signs and display the speed limit on the dashboard, and plenty of “passive” safety features, too - like proximity sensors, and lane departure warnings.
There’s also a couple of safety features aimed specifically at cabbies: The passenger doors won’t open unless the cab is at a complete stand-still, and the cab won’t set off unless the driver has his or her seatbelt on. I presume this latter feature will be subverted by drivers fairly quickly.
How does it drive?
Finally, the most important part: How does it drive? Excitingly, LEVC actually let me have a quick go in the driving seat on one of the quiet roads around Regent’s Park. And though I’ve no real experience to compare it to, it was enormously exciting to drive a cab. The immediate sensation was one of size: You forget just how massive cabs are, because though they look normal sized, the lack of boot and oversized bodies means that these are on the large side.
But still, the EV TX handled great - it was an incredibly smooth drive, and accelerated exactly like other electric vehicles: Seamlessly, with no clunking about.
There are currently somewhere between 50 and 100 of these taxis currently on the road - and no doubt those numbers will increase over the next few years as cabbies upgrade and get ready for even tighter environmental regulations, meaning you could be hailing one of these vehicles yourself in the not too distant future.