The black cab revolution

Vice President of Engineering at GKN Driveline, Rainer Link, discusses with Alex Kreetzer the development behind the e-Axle alongside the London EV Company’s new black cabs.

Rainer Link has been a part of GKN's e-Drive business since its creation four years ago, quickly growing from a small business with a lot of ideas to winning its first business deal and gaining new customers in the automotive market. Now, the global engineering group has gained a strong relationship with automakers such as Volvo and Geely, building a reputation off GKN’s previous work. GKN has been involved in the electrification market for many years; it is now contacted directly by customers who want to collaborate on alternative drivetrains - whether that is an EV, plug-in or hybrid vehicle.  

Focusing on GKN's e-Axle technology, it is evident that there is a gap in the market for an alternative drivetrain, especially given the rapid growth of the EV sector. You can already find the component within the all-wheel-drive system on Volvo’s XC90, but GKN is now introducing the powertrain into other vehicles - most recently, London’s black cabs. "We do a lot of all-wheel-drive systems and e-Axles and it was logical for us to come together with London Taxi,” says Rainer Link, GKN’s Vice President of Engineering and e-Axle development. But instead of retrofitting these drivelines into the dated cabs, the London EV Company (LEVC) has revamped the iconic design and created a cleaner, more efficient and more enjoyable experience for London commuters.  

This is great in terms of future mobility, although not many suppliers have the same calibre as GKN does in terms of production and reliability. Due to the company being an established tier supplier in the automotive industry, it is used to working alongside OEMs, which typically demand large orders to maintain high production targets. “It is difficult to produce high-volumes of innovations within the transportation industry, due to startups and small companies not having enough resources to supply the major automakers,” adds Link. This is where GKN thrives, as it is able to sell its e-Axle in high volumes and as an ‘off the shelf’ product. "Our existing solutions can also be slightly modified to create a cost-effective way for these smaller volumes. For the beginning of electrification in the automotive industry, it is important that you create existing solutions that you can directly fit into vehicles. Then, as soon as the volume increases, it is possible to have dedicated solutions.” 

The grandfather of mobility

Dubbed the grandfather of mobility, London's black cabs have played a huge role in the history of the city’s transport. However, it is time for a change as e-hailing companies have taken a lot of business away from London taxis through new processes. But how do you modernise the iconic vehicle whilst maintaining its heritage? The answer is here. Thanks to a collaboration between GKN and the London taxi, black cabs are now being electrified - providing clean, safe and quiet transit for passengers. This in itself will play its part in increasing the awareness of EVs and mobility services in cities, further propelling London towards its environmental goals.  

"A lot of people do not like the idea of EVs until they actually sit inside one,” says Link. “Now, with this new opportunity in London, people will become more comfortable with EVs, experiencing how much better they are in comparison to the older taxis. This shows that you need to get these applications on the road and into service to raise the awareness of electrification." There is still a range extender used within the new taxis, which is an advantage for driving in and out of the city, something typical of taxis - whether that is airport runs or operating within central London. In the city, the electric motor can be used to help drive down emissions and noise pollution. Outside, the taxis can use the petrol engine for extended range and long distance driving, overcoming the common issue of range anxiety. "You will never have to worry about running out of charge thanks to the range extender, making sure that the customer will always get from A to B without any stops or delays,” continues Link. “Depending on the strategy, we can create a fully-electric vehicle that operates in the city over short distances, such as we are seeing with the Street Scooter delivery service in Germany."  

For a while, plug-in hybrids with range extenders will be used to provide that extra bit of safety for consumers, until the infrastructure and battery technology is developed enough for completely electric vehicles to operate effectively. "It all depends on how the infrastructure develops, such as fast charging and general EV support,” adds Link.  

Aiding change

The development of EVs almost entirely depends on the supporting infrastructure, which has been falling behind the technology. This isn't necessarily down to the technology itself, but the rollout of the charging stations, which will continue to slow down overall development. London authorities are starting to invest into EV infrastructure, which will help, but there is still a lot more that has to be done in order to become the favoured mode of transport. "The cost and weight of the battery is one thing, but the infrastructure that supports the EVs is something that needs to develop at the same speed as electrification. This is one of the main limiting factors today and, through direct contact with customers, we understand why people are afraid of buying an EV, due to the long list of possible issues that could come with it." In the future, there needs to be a charging system in place which is just as quick to charge as a petrol or diesel car is to fill up. This may seem far-fetched at the moment, but it is certainly something that is being identified by the industry today.  

Most of the people living in city apartments only have street parking available to them, which is a huge issue when it comes to EV ownership. It is important that cities like London push forward and invest into electrification to improve the infrastructure. However, says Link, “if you look at where we were five years ago and where we are now, we are going in the right direction. We expect a sufficient infrastructure to appear in around five years.” If we continue this trend, we will see a noticeable increase of EV support throughout the city and, hopefully in the near future, see a drastic shift over to electrification thanks to the appropriate surrounding support. We must remember that this is a process and not write-off electrification before it has time to improve into what people expect of the technology today.  

The time is now

There is a major environmental issue in the city of London, with emissions levels at an all-time high, which is already having a significant impact on people's lives. To overcome this, drastic measures are needed, such as removing all petrol and diesel vehicles from dense urban environments. This will be a lengthy process, but it will create a better quality of life through cleaner transport. "GKN is convinced that, sooner or later, these cities will have to be electrified,” stresses Link. “We forecast that by 2030, 75% of cars will be electrified due to new legislations like the diesel ban. There will be loads of new rules that will not allow conventional vehicles in the city. Depending on the pressure of the legislation, it could come even sooner - but it is difficult to give an exact date as it also depends on how far the technology is developed." Although there will be rules and legislation, there will be exceptions with special vehicles and classic cars, but Link expects to see over 50% of vehicles to be electrified in order to be allowed in cities. Over this transitional period, hybrids will be the best solution as they can be driven in both modes, which can be chosen depending on what environment you are in. "Long-term, the cities will be electrified and, in addition to this, we will also expect to see the emergence of autonomous driving.” 

GKN will continue to be a leader in electrified drivetrains, which is why it has put so many years into developing the e-Axle. Now, the company will look at providing the full drive unit with all the components around it. A range of vehicles demonstrating GKN technology, from the BMW i8 to the Porsche 918 Spyder, has proved that Link’s company is on the right track and able to deal with high volumes and demand. And, with EV adoption consistently improving, business should be booming for GKN and the EV market. “I think that this is the same with London Taxi, demonstrating how cleanly a vehicle can run through London which will leave a consumer thinking about whether their next car should be an EV,” he assures.  

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