(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine. I don’t like to read my own pieces, and I haven’t read the published version in the magazine yet. There are some nice pictures though).
Keep it Unique
Taxi licensing bodies around the country are driving a move towards electric cabs. Are we ready for changes to the vehicles we drive, and what do we want the new generation of taxis to look like?
For one, it has to look like a taxi – that’s our Unique Selling Point. It can retain the semblance of the FX/TX shape that we’ve had since 1958, or it can be something radically different. The crucial thing is that it’s recognised as a taxi and it can’t be used by private hire. The forthcoming TX6 will be a variation on what we have at the moment, and will be a continuation of the cab known and loved around the world. As for the radically different, there’s the new Metrocab. This has a truly unique shape and an impressive range of modern features. It’s sure to impress any taxi customer, and I think once it becomes familiar, it’ll be a real winner.
I’m not sure exactly when we’ll see these cabs on the street, but it looks a year or two away. The move to electric vehicles is exciting, and many drivers agree. I’ve read that 80% of drivers are interested in buying a zero emission-capable cab. There’s clearly a willingness to go electric, but there are still concerns that need addressing.
Firstly, trade needs to pick up over the next year or two. Purpose-built taxis are expensive vehicles as they are a specialist vehicle with a limited customer base. We appreciate that. We don’t realistically expect a cheaper cab, but it can’t be much more expensive than current models. With work levels being depressed, few drivers have the confidence, or the money, to invest in a new vehicle. Do the makers realise the uncertainty in the trade at present? Earnings are lower than they were several years’ ago and we need to feel confident things will improve in the near future. A rise in the current cost of a new vehicle will not install confidence with drivers who’ve seen their earnings fall and their costs rise year by year. The London Taxi Company has invested in a new production site and aims to provide up to a thousand new jobs. If their next offering is priced too high, it won’t be just the drivers worrying over their futures.
There are of course, van conversions available. I’m sure the Vito is comfortable for passengers: some account customers specifically request a Vito, as other customers request a TX. However nice a Vito is, it’s not uniquely a cab! It’s not what tourists have in mind when they come to London to ride in the famous black cab. I firmly believe a London taxi has to be unique. We need as much differentiation as possible.
We nearly got the Nissan NV200, but Boris scared them off in indecision over licensing. Personally, I like the Ford Galaxy. I know Addison Lee got there first, but I’d be interested to see what would happen should several thousand Galaxy taxi conversions hit the streets. The Galaxy might be too small for our customers’ needs, but a smaller vehicle would be easier to drive, and would be cheaper than the alternatives.
Other existing van or people carriers could be converted, were it not for the turning circle requirement. I’d like to retain the turning circle myself, but perhaps we should be given the choice. If there are over 100,000 mini-cabs; shouldn’t they have to have a twenty-five foot turning circle rather than us? It would save us a lot of trouble waiting for three of them to do a three-point turn in Pancras Road. We could argue that with private hire outnumbering us about four-to-one, it’s they who should be forced to comply: not only with the turning circle requirement, but for wheelchair accessibility. I’m not sure we should continue making our taxis so tall! I’ve yet to pick up a gent wearing a top hat, and even if I did, I’d expect him to take it off before getting in.
Another major concern with going electric is that there are only seven hundred rapid charging points in the whole of the UK. Where are these charging points, and how do you actually charge them? Can you plug your cab in at home and run a cable through your letter box? How much electricity does it take to charge a cab? Does it take a month’s worth in one go, or is it like boiling a kettle? What if you live in an upstairs flat? No-one seems to know how far the range is. I’ve heard thirty miles mentioned. Driving in to work, I’m still on the M1 after thirty miles, so I’m naturally a bit apprehensive.
I expect concerns over charging will be remedied in time, and I’m sure the forthcoming electric-capable cabs will impress drivers and passengers. It’ll be nice to be able to hear our passengers speak without the rumble of a diesel engine, and the cab should be cheaper to run – until the government find new ways of taxing us anyway. I just hope the new cabs impress customers enough to improve trade.