The black cab is one of the iconic images of London. The tradition of black ‘Hackney Cabs’ goes back centuries, originally pulled by horses of course. In 1897 the first motorised taxi was introduced, and it was electric. It became known as the ‘hummingbird’, and the Science Museum has one of the last few remaining examples. The taxis recharged by swapping out their batteries, which took less than three minutes.
The inventor of the electric London taxi, Walter Bersey, hoped that his new vehicle would come to replace horse-drawn cabs as the new standard, but it was not to be. Electricity was still too expensive at the time, and the car was heavy and slow. Worst of all, it just wasn’t durable enough for the daily workload of a London cab. They began to rattle apart, and within two years the dozens of hummingbirds had had once served the city’s streets had been retired.
If Bersey’s taxi had come along just a few years later, it might have worked. Dunlop tyres were introduced to the car market in 1900, and they may have been enough to deal with the vibration problems that were the car’s downfall. The legal framework for proper power companies, and hence affordable electricity, came in 1899 and 1905. So Bersey was ahead of his time, and the world wasn’t ready for the electric cab. Horses kept going for another twenty years, and were eventually replaced by oil-powered combustion engines.
After 120 years, the electric taxi is finally making a comeback. London has been trying to wrestle down its air pollution problem for a few years, introducing a low emissions zone in 2008, trialing gas and hydrogen powered buses, and supporting hybrid vehicles. The transport authority has also been targeting taxis. From 2018 all new London taxis need to be capable of running on electric power, with all private hire vehicles compliant a couple of years later.
The rules only apply to new taxis, with existing ones able to run out their natural lives. But there is a generous fund to support taxi drivers who want to upgrade from diesel to electric sooner rather than later. The city will also be playing its part by expanding the number of charging points, promising 300 of them by 2020.
In advance of these new rules, the makers of London’s black cabs have designed an electric version, with a new factory opening a couple of weeks ago. The London Taxi Company (owned by a Chinese car company in traditional British fashion), will sell its first hybrid electric taxis later this year. It has competition from Metrocab, which launched a zero emissions taxi last year. Hopefully both of these will outlast the Hummingbird, and London will finally get the electric taxi revolution it deserves, second time around.