EV Leaders: Dr Alex Howard founder of Clipper Automotive 

    Clipper Automotiveis a start-up electric vehicle (EV) company that is currently focused on converting London taxis to fully electric powertrains. It’s the brainchild of Dr Alex Howard, and along with fellow founder, Janosch Oppermann, and their London-based team, have developed a scalable conversion system for this. 

    Retrofitting is a great opportunity for repurposing many useable cabs and Clipper currently offers the greenest electric taxis on the market. Converting is much cheaper than replacement and saves lots of highly useable vehicles going to landfill. 

    Along with use in London, Clipper is also launching in Oxford, since City Council have removed barriers to licensing for zero emissions taxis. They have issued Clipper with Hackney Carriage Numbers to start operating clean taxis in Oxford. 

    Howard has a PhD in manufacturing planning and control systems and is the operations director at Media Powerhouse helping to drive change. Before this, he was a sustainability management consultant at Southfacing Services. He also spent 10 years at BT Global Services as head of customer experience and head of business improvement. 

    This means Howard brings a lot of experience and ideas to the zero emissions table. He’s an interesting character and wants to drive change for a greener cleaner future. We caught up with Howard to find out more.

    EDs: Your background is at BT on the customer experience side. How does that work inform your current business?

    I’ve always been interested in driving change and the carrots and sticks needed to do it. At BT I defined a measure of customer experience “Right First Time” which was used throughout BT to reward teams and incentivise process change.  

    For the taxi trade, there is a lot of pressure to change with passenger preferences, emissions zones and council licensing conditions. Until now, taxi drivers have only had limited, rather expensive options. Clipper Cabs address these issues and are a win-win for everyone to help make the transition to net zero easier.

    EDs: You have a PhD in manufacturing planning and control systems. How do you draw upon that academic experience?

    A lot of modern management techniques and methods of driving continuous improvement has its roots in manufacturing systems thinking from earlier in the 20th century. I believe this systems thinking and many of the tools and techniques (six sigma, kaizen, lean, agile etc.) can be used to great effect to help us achieve true sustainability and a circular economy.

    EDs: How did you end up in the world of black cabs and where did the idea for converting them come from?

    When we started, diesel cabs were the worst polluting single vehicle type on the streets of London. I have kids, live, work and cycle in London and couldn’t believe they were still around. With everything we knew about the damage air pollution does to our health, as well as the CO2 emissions something needed to be done.

    I started looking into it and realised they were a perfect candidate for conversion to electric powertrains. They are strong, serviceable and high utilisation vehicles. A London taxi can do 500,000 miles in its lifetime.  

    Plus, cabbies have hardly any options for going over zero emissions vehicles. The LEVC is a nice unit but it’s a plug-in petrol hybrid and expensive. The taxi trade has taken a battering recently, especially through the particularly through the pandemic. We are trying to offer them another option which is cheaper and better for the planet.

    EDs: What has the response been from cabbies that have driven it?

    Cabbies love it, it’s quiet, smooth, and powerful. Don’t just take my word for it, check out our test drive videos on our YouTube channel. My favourite is Steve McNamara (see below), the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association Ltd (LTDA) General Secretary.

    EDs: How long does it take to convert a cab?

    We can do one in a couple of weeks as long as we have all the parts. We hold a stock of the specialist bits like the bespoke driveshaft, battery boxes and printed circuit boards for our control units. The paperwork and inspections take a few months though. 

    EDs: How much does it cost to do this and is it more economical than just replacing it with a new electric cab?

    We are currently renting the first ones out at standard weekly rates for taxi rental.  Yes, it will be much cheaper than buying a new cab. We will sell one for £39,000 but this will be less for the taxi driver depending on local grants to go electric. Currently, our model is the only London taxi format all-electric vehicle on the market.  

    Also of course there is far less embodied carbon. It takes about 50,000 miles of driving a 100 per cent battery electric vehicle (BEV) before the planet benefits. This is because of the carbon cost of manufacturing the metals and batteries. There are 35 million cars on the road in the UK and we need to be moving to a circular economy where we are repurposing the cars worth keeping. 

    EDs: What are the biggest advantages of converting to electric besides the obvious zero emissions?

    Price is also a big advantage. Plus, the fuel savings are huge. We estimate a driver will save well over £100 a week in fuel and over £200 a year in maintenance costs. 

    With our conversions, drivers get to keep using a perfectly good traditional London taxi, with all the advantages of the tight turning circle, headroom and popularity amongst passengers.  

    The Clipper Cabs are compliant with all Low Emissions Zones that are being rolled out across UK towns and cities, so the cabs avoid the fees and councils should license them.

    EDs: What is the expected lifetime of a cab with a new electric powertrain?

    We will extend the useful life of the taxi as we remove the vibration, noise and pollution. Also, visionary councils are extending the allowable age limits on all-electric vehicles in many cases, so they can be licensed for longer.  

    The motors are very robust and will outlast the vehicles and the batteries. The batteries are a bit of an unknown quantity. The older EVS versions are demonstrating that a 40kWh pack can be  good for 200,000 miles (321,869km) before they get to 75 per cent of their original state of health if they are not abused. We have yet to see how that translates to a typical taxi working pattern.

    EDs: What is the battery size and expected range?

    Our first available system is a 40kWh pack and in testing, we are seeing around 120 miles of range in real-world city driving. We will be developing a bigger pack in the near future. As battery power to weight ratio improves and prices fall this becomes more viable. 

    EDs: When will diesel cabs be phased out and when do you think electric taxis will be the norm?

    Councils are pushing hard on this. Many places will only license Euro6 compliant vehicles today, so in effect, the diesel vehicles are gone. However, the change is too fast for many in the taxi trade. They can’t afford the only options available and many cities risk losing their Hackney carriage fleet.  

    Towns and cities are already struggling with unmet demand, particularly at weekends in the evenings. We are looking to partner with councils to address this. We think we can work together to keep drivers in the trade and improve air quality and their carbon footprint while preserving an iconic British vehicle.

    It’s a genuine win-win. Anyone who wants these vehicles in their town or city should get in touch quickly before they all go. 

    EDs: Where do you see the business in one, three and five years?

    In one year, we will have small fleets of electric cabs up and running. In three years, you will see thousands of them, plus the Clipper EV system will be used in other types of vehicle. In five years, we would like to be making truly sustainable transport but that depends on carbon neutral steel being widely available and the battery supply chain being cleaned up. 

    EDs: What electric vehicle do you drive?

    A first-generation Nissan LEAF, 2013 but during the week I mostly cycle because it’s the quickest way to get around central London. On weekends, I often borrow one of the cabs because it offers a greater range and more seats.

    Ian Osborne
    Ian Osborne
    Editor-in-Chief at ElectricDrives

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