LEVC develops taxi into range-extender commercial EV
When Geely bought the London Taxi Company—and subsequently created LEVC (London EV Company)—it saw the potential for the brand to become much more than the single niche product that was then on offer. The first step to this growth path was the unveiling of the VN5 van, a vehicle that is aimed at the distribution market, developed partly in response to the explosion of online retailing.
The overall process has taken a combination of time, relocation to a brand new 31,000-m² (333,000-ft²) production site—the UK’s only all-electric vehicle plant—and the growth of the EV market to become a reality. From the start of production—planned for Q4 2020—the VN5 will take up 70% of the facility’s 20,000-unit-a-year capacity, helping the plant to become more efficient and enabling the product lineup to continue to grow.
“The old company’s business model wasn’t sustainable, which is why it had financial problems,” said Joerg Hofmann, CEO at LEVC. “We are transforming the iconic taxi company into a manufacturer of commercial electric vehicles. We’re moving the brand in a new direction, and we believe we are a model to follow for other OEMs who are transferring from an ICE to an EV company.”
The VN5 name, by the way, illustrates the vehicle type (VN = van) and cargo capacity 5 m³ (177 ft³); Hofmann said to expect larger and smaller models in the VN range to join the 5 in due course.
Having already used its “eCity” system to good effect in the TX Taxi model, the same technology will be deployed in the van. Powered by a combination a 400-kg (880-lb) LG Chem 31-kW·h battery, a 130-kW electric motor, and a 1.5-L gasoline engine, on spec alone the VN5 is a hybrid. But Hofmann was keen to point out that is very much not the case.
“The technology within the van is technically a range-extender system, but it is always driven by the battery,” he emphasized. “The engine under the hood only kicks in and charges the battery when the battery is running low; that is its sole purpose.”
Hofmann said the technology is the best option for the next 5-10 years because the current choice of high-voltage batteries creates range-anxiety issues for LEVC’s taxi and van customers.
“We are in the distribution industry, as well as offering last-mile solutions, because our vehicle has a wider use case thanks to the range extender,” he said. “We can cross the cities much more easily and when the range extender engine is used, the VN5 offers a maximum range of 301 mi.”
The introduction of the relatively small VN5—official payload is 800 kg (1760 lb)—is designed to offer a fresh approach to zero-emission distribution in the UK and beyond. James Drake-Lee, head of product development at LEVC, explained that prior to starting work on the van he and his team had analyzed the market and seen the extent of downsizing in the light commercial vehicle sector.
“The downsizing trend exists partly because vans are underutilized, particularly in the environments we’re targeting here. Around 40% of vans are less than a quarter full in their daily usage,” he said. “Equally, the growth in e-commerce means more parcel deliveries, which, in turn, means more vehicles and congestion. In London, there is a finite number of loading bays and some of the streets are very narrow. We’ve introduced a van that breaks the paradigm—a small big van or a big small van.”
There are further efficiency breakthroughs with the charging setup.
“Using a 50-kW fast charger, the VN5 can be charged in 30 min, which is around the same time as it can take to load the vehicle back at the depot,” explained Drake-Lee. “That means there is minimum disruption to the working day and the vehicle is not left idle when charging.”
The VN5 construction makes considerable use of aluminum, and the new van is the first vehicle in the segment to use a lightweight aluminum and SMC-bonded structure.
“Aluminum is more resistant to corrosion than steel, and the SMC is much more resistant to the dents and spillages that you get with the everyday life of running a van in an urban environment,” said Drake-Lee.
The VN5 has been designed to last twice as long as a steel van, further adding to its environmental credentials.
“We see a trend in the future for longer periods of vehicle ownership,” added the LEVC man.
To prove the materials, the development team ventured to the Arctic Tundra and the Arizona desert to evaluate the technology in extreme cold and hot environments respectively. Confidence in the predicted lifetime is reflected in the warranties, which have been set at five years/150,000 mi for the vehicle and eight years/150,000 mi for the battery. There is also the option to extend both of the warranties.