Electric Dreams

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Something strange happened at the start of the year: electric charging points started to mushroom up all over London. The last time I wrote about electric cabs I believe there was one solitary rapid charger in the city. Now they’re everywhere!

To add to the excitement there are expected to be two additional models of electric taxi available by the end of the year. There are still price concerns, but at least the charging situation looks a bit better.

I’m sure many of us are waiting for a sustained improvement in trade before committing to a new cab, particularly with three models to compare. I’m hoping at least one of the new cabs will be affordable. I sigh with relief every year my high-mileage seven-year old TX4 gets through its annual inspection. I feel I’m riding my luck. Every year the dents and the paint blisters get worse. Every year I worry that the gearbox or engine will pack up, and I’ll be faced with the garage bill from hell, or the prospect of committing to several years of huge monthly payments on a new cab. Every year I promise myself a new cab if trade improves. Every year I think how nice it would be to actually hear what my passengers are saying to me.

At the moment though, the idea remains a range-extended pipe dream. I can’t afford the new LEVC offering. I don’t know enough about engines to risk the second-hand market, and if I struck now it’d be another dirty noisy diesel. Like it or not, the future is electric. A diesel cab will feel like the Flintstone’s car in a few years.

Diesel vehicle drivers are already being demonised. Some local authorities are starting to charge extra for parking, and in some areas of London, diesel vehicles aren’t allowed at all. Hackney and Islington have designated some ultra-low emission roads in the Shoreditch area. From July, nine roads will be verboten to petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. Can they legally do this? Who knows, but these directives are hard to challenge. Can we at least assume that every Hackney Council vehicle needing to drive down the banned streets will be electric? All road maintenance vehicles and dust carts? All the social workers and community nurses darting about from place to place. Will fire engines, police cars, and ambulances be exempt? (what fuel do emergency vehicles run on anyway?).

In these days of choice and cut-throat competition, I think the cab trade needs a distinctive vehicle in order to capture the public imagination. Most of the people I pick up at the weekends are tourists. Many cab aficionados want a taxi that looks and feels nothing like the car they have on their driveway at home. I’m not sure a van conversion is going to do it, but we’ll see what the Nissan Dynamo looks like in the summer. The other two models are unique enough. They’re different from the TX4, but they still look like taxis.

We’ll have to compare the range the different vehicles can cover before switching to petrol – and then ultimately running out of petrol and grinding to a halt. The Nissan Dynamo doesn’t come with a petrol engine at all (Will the RAC be equipped with mobile chargers?).  Reading about the new cabs and chargers in Taxi I was thinking about an account job I had recently: Pall Mall to Gatwick. It took one hour and fifty minutes to get there, then two and a half hours to drive eighty miles home to Bedfordshire on three congested motorways. An electric car driver could come unstuck on a run like that. It would have been unbearably stressful had I been worrying about running out of fuel.

Living forty miles from Central London I’ll certainly be researching charging points locally before committing. I haven’t seen any in Leighton Buzzard yet, though we do have electricity. And colour television. I suppose a slow charger will give me an excuse to sit in a pub for an hour or two, but that novelty will soon wear off. Even waiting around for half an hour every day is a no-no for me. That’s twenty-five minutes more than I currently spend re-fuelling. That’s technology going backwards, surely? I’ve no idea how home-charging works: do you just run an extension cable through your letter box like when you mow the lawn?

I’m not sure how much it costs to charge a taxi with electricity, but I assume the current price is an introductory offer. We’re still in the dark as to how much this whole electric cab project is going to cost us day to day. One thing that is only just being talked about is the fact that to be allowed to charge up with electricity at certain sites you need to take out a subscription – up to £32 per month from what I hear.

The last time I wrote about electric cabs, our biggest energy supplier, British Gas were about to put their electricity prices up by 12.5%. During the writing of this piece I heard that their customers on dual-fuel tariffs are facing an additional 5.5% rise, with both British Gas and N-Power. Maybe things will get more competitive? Possibly, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that by the time most of us have converted we’ll be spending about as much as we’re currently spending on re-fuelling with diesel. We’ll see. ..

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