Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Industry Structure – Clean Energy Solutions - Taxi-ing for Take-Off ?

The adoption of clean energy solutions by the auto-industry, and critically the car-buying public, has long been a problematic, as intertwined practical, financial and psychological factors play primary roles inhibiting adoption.

Of course the Kyoto Protocol 'awakened' different nations at different rates, those with greatest technology advancement, regulatory power and social-engineering able to re-orientate resources to meet the climate challenge early – Japan being the best example with 'coercion' if not direct assistance in Toyota's and Honda's mass-productionisation of Prius and now Insight 2.

The almost omnipotent Chinese have 2 of those 3 macro-enablers at their authorities fingertips, whilst the 3rd, advanced technology, is only a short distance away in the form of their historically remote, but now commercially close, neighbour – Japan. Itself seeking product, service and IPR export to spur its own low growth economy. And remember the Chinese are familiar with modes of 'Clean Energy Transport' with electric bicycles and mopeds being the fundamentals of personal mobility for millions. Hence embracing a truly practical and convenient electric car is a far less daunting for first time buyers than for the Western populous. This is the theory at least, though of course the UAZ Jeep to the VW Santana could have been said to lay the populist perception of the 'adopted' Chinese car. But it could be argued that the Communist Party of China seeks to create a true national Chinese Car derived from the 'progressive' engineering concepts / demonstrators spot-lighted the Beijing Auto Show?

The West has obviously had greater commercial, financial and societal headwinds in terms of such a radical re-orientation of its personal and public mobility construct. Relative to the Car per se, there are enormous, and understandable, barriers to change; ranging across the:

1. Psychological (110 years of using the internal combustion engine and its attuned worldwide supporting infrastructure)
2. Attitudinal (where cars are effectively 'status ranked' according to ICE cubic capacity and conventional ICE engineering capability – see BMW and Mercedes)
3. Economic (the fact that the massive auto-industry – upstream to downstream- is orientated around ICE business model)
4. etc etc

However, as of literally today a confluence of issues and trends may be about to give alternative propulsion re-newed traction here in the United Kingdom, it's epi-centre: The City. The City, for all its current woes is political & geographic merged field reflecting 2 timely and important events, which if logically combined point to the the beginnings of what could be a major wave supporting electric vehicles.

Firstly, The City has been the facilitator of the just announced £12.4bn deal that saw France's EDF Energy buy control of British Energy (with expectations to sell-off a 25% stake to Centrica). That essentially proffers the nuclear-able skill set to both re-condition the UK's current 30 year old reactors and build a rumoured 4 new nuclear plants to provide the UK with much increased electricity capacity over the coming decades. Capacity that could charge electric vehicles.

Secondly, The City is the geographic and spiritual home of the London Black Cab, a vehicle which has always had a special genealogy and DNA set by the strict standards of the Public Carriage Office, itself obviously under UK government control. Such standards, in the interests of public policy, have historically made Black Cabs genetically different to mainstream cars, whether in terms of passenger capacity, maneuverability, standard of service etc etc. But today the PCO is under government pressure to transform the emissions output of the iconic taxi, which even lags mainstream people-carriers due to aged powertrains. Given London's leading role in transport policy (ie Congestion Charge & emissions reduction) there is a strong case to state that there is a governmental desire to see the Black Cab leapfrog forward to achieve the world-wide gold standard. That means that the vehicle and its design may have to undertake radical propulsion transformation, employing Plug-In Hybrid & All-Electric technology to ultimately conform with ever constricting policy guidelines which may well be being drafted.

investment-auto-motives appreciates the 'serendipity' of the present-day unfurling events.
The occurrence of engine fires on 8 TX4 vehicles (registered in mid 2005) in the space of 3 weeks required the PCO's withdrawal of an initial 10 Black Cabs from the road for inspection. A failure to determine the fire's cause lead to the temporary retraction of 500 driver licences for those operating other '56-plate' (mid-2006) vehicles to avoid the possibility of endangering the public. And now a further 70 later registered 2007 vehicles, sharing similar chassis numbers (and so specifications) have been suspended.

The PCO could well argue the point (and objectively conclude) that these unfortunate, non-isolated 8 similar accidents highlights a critical design flaw within the TX taxi range's aged powertrain set.

That in turn would call for a complete re-design of the TX's propulsion unit, which as part of a changed standards policy, would undoubtedly demand radical new emissions standards to be met, very probably matching or beating the European Commissions 120g/km target for (originally) 2012 – now being lobbied by automakers for postponement until 2015.
Thus the watershed agreement between EDF and Centrica that crystallizes the UK's energy policy to invest heavily in a new generation of nuclear powerplants, would logically and deductively, be aligned to a new impetus to invest in PI Hybrid and All-Electric powerplant technology for London's iconic taxis. An impetus that is being built-up in the presently on-going UK Automotive Inquiry which seeks to re-vitalise UK industry as a front-runner in green propulsion technology.

Manganese Bronze is the holding company of LTI Vehicles (formerly London Taxis International), the maker of the TX cabs and owner of Mann & Overton and KPM, arguably the duopolistic retailers of the vehicle in London. Importantly, MB also already has strategic interest in the electric propulsion arena. It has already created a network of technology alliances with the likes of Tanfield (owner of Smiths Electric Vehicles) to produce an EV taxi and for Hybrid technology utilises the knowledge of Azure Dynamics.

Thus MB is strategically “ahead of the curve” when it comes to regulatory demand set out for the PCO by Transport for London, a division of the Mayor's office. Interestingly TfL also introduced a second tier fleet of black taxi's based on Ford and other MPV type cars, created it was argued to “soak up additional un-met taxi-ride demand”. Fortuitously, this fleet can also soak-up the loss of the 600 or so TX's taken off the road in the interim.

investment-auto-motives believes we are witnessing the beginnings of a radical transformation of the Black Cab and the possible underpinnings to achieve the UK Inquiry's ambitions to transform the UK auto-sector .

That transformation, using the Black Cab fleet as a springboard, positively encourages production economies of scale that can be pragmatically commercially absorbed and amortised. Given the high-cost of such a niche vehicle, typically £35,000, a notional technology induced on-cost can obviously off-set as an item of depreciation on a cabbie or fleet operator's commercial accounts. That important ability could act as a half-way post to further 'volumising' electric vehicle propulsion sets for more mainstream fleet and ultimately private vehicle applications.

Strategically for MB, having set up a components sourcing and assembly partnership with Geely Automotive and a distribution office in the USA, hopes to both dramatically reduce assembly costs, so as to also absorb electric propulsion drivetrain costs in its ex-factory vehicle costs, and extend its global reach to both Beijing and New York; as each of those cities expect to introduce follow-on London-aligned taxi transport policies.

Thus with the EDF deal and Black Cab incidents, we suspect we are witnessing are confluence of events that will ultimately help mesh the needs and visions of UK Auto plc, itself and its accompanying players acting as a vanguard of public-private transport policy progress on the global stage.