Microcabs: A Bloody Good Idea!
By Bill Moore
"The most polluted places are urban places... city centers," explained John Jostins from his London office. He was sharing with me the rationale for why he sees a need for a small, non-polluting taxi cab, especially in a big, congested urban area like London; and especially when two of the most common forms of public transit -- taxis and buses -- are typically diesel-powered.
Jostins has a long, personal history of involvement in the motor sport/auto racing world, working with then exotic materials including carbon composites. Nearly a decade ago, he decided to do something about what he refers to as one of the less "sexy" parts of the auto industry, commercial taxi cabs, which historically tend to rely on obsolete vehicles and engine technology. The design of today's famous London black cabs have changed little in half a century.
He observed that the typical London taxi travels less than 100 miles in a day and usually at low speeds due to traffic congestion. He saw that where the very real short-comings of batteries and fuel cells handicapped they acceptance in personal motor vehicles, they actually dovetailed nicely with the operational characteristics of taxis: relatively short distances, low speeds, lots of stop-n-go driving, central refueling.
But rather than take the approach of previous groups who have sought to retrofit conventional cabs with hybrid drives or zinc-air fuel cells, Jostins would begin at a much more elemental level: a simple, three-wheeled pedicab or what is known in Asia as a Tuk-tuk. Back in 1998, his company, Greenheart Millennium Transport (GMT) built their prototype pedicab, which sported a 600w electric motor with built in torque sensor. It would be this vehicle that Jostins would later use as a proof-of-concept fuel cell taxi.
As weight is the enemy in motor sport racing, so it is in public transit, he explained. Where the goal in racing is speed, the goal of Microcab is reduction of the amount of energy needed to do the job and thereby reduce the pollution generated. That's why his GMT pedicab prototype made use of carbon composites and why the four-wheeled version pictured above makes use of the same materials.
In 2001, Jostins put in an application to the UK's Department of Trade and Industry for a "Smart Award" to study the feasibility of adapting a small, 750 watt hydrogen fuel cell built by Intelligent Energy to his pedicab. The government accepted his application and awarded him funding to create what became, in essence, a fuel-cell hybrid that used batteries to augment power demands. He dropped the human-assist for weight and space considerations since the maximum sustained output of a human is only about 75 watts. Instead, he mounted 150 watts of solar panels on the roof. Top speed was 25-26 mph. Range was limited due to the small bottle of hydrogen it carried. He points out that the vehicle was just proof-of-concept and never intended for to be put into service.
From the hydrogen-powered pedicab, Jostins collaborated with Coventry University, where he is a part-time lecturer in digital media, to design and develop the most current version of the Microcab, a more conventional 4-wheeled model with large side door, making it possible for wheelchair-bound and handicapped passengers to more easily enter and egress. It fact, as Jostins explained, the need to easily accommodate these passengers dictated the shift from the 3-wheel approach to the 4-wheel.
"The height of the vehicle, the door aperture, the flat floor, the inside space have all been driven by that. And of course, it is very, very easy for everyone else to get in and out of. The average person can step in and almost stand at full height." He added that using a hydrogen fuel cell and electric drive is what made it physically possible to offer this kind of space. It simply couldn't be done with a more traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. "You don't have a big transmission tunnel... gearbox... These things tend to push their way into the cabin."
The target weight of the vehicle is 450 kg (992 lbs.), which currently has a 2kW fuel cell that is likely to be upgraded to 3kW. Not surprisingly, the combination of minimal power and light weight translates into 100 mpg efficiency, Jostins estimates. "We're quit pleased with that."
Besides the taxi cab configuration where only the driver has a seat in front leaving the space next to him open for luggage and shopping bags, Microcab is also planning a delivery van version. Top speed for both versions will be 40 mph. At the moment, the current prototype is about 150 kg (330 lbs.) overweight so maximum speed is 35-36 mph.
"Like all electric vehicles, acceleration is good because you have that torque immediately..."
Jostins believes there is a sizable niche for the vehicle in the UK and on the continent, but also acknowledges that the availability -- or lack thereof -- of a hydrogen infrastructure dictates how quickly a fuel cell model could be put into wider commercial service. In the case of London, Ken Livingston, the Lord Mayor has put his support behind hydrogen and order that up to 70 hydrogen vehicles be placed into service in the next few years, along with the needed hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
"We have put in a bid to be part of that," Jostins told EV World. "We realize, as well, that the hydrogen market may grow, but it won't necessarily grow very quickly and we could be leaving ourselves in a position where we're too slow to make a serious business out of it. So, we are looking at the other alternatives: the pure electric... and the more conventionally fueled hybrid-electric. And we think we'll have to make up the numbers with those other drives for the early market, and wait until the hydrogen side grows. That's our broad plan of attack."
He commented that the cost of the hydrogen fuel cell and storage system combined add up to more than the cost of the rest of the vehicle, a reality that is also driving the search for a less costly alternative. He'd like to manufacture between 500 and 1,500 vehicles a year. At the latter production number, he estimates the Microcab might sell for around £15,000 ($ 29,552US) or less with higher production. At present, one-offs cost £50,000 ($98,488US) each.
"If we can get into production, we can get the cost down," he stated. Microcabs has joined forces with a number of other automotive niche manufacturers and suppliers in the Midlands section of the UK to form a production consortium to build the first 50 or so vehicles.
In addition to the taxi and the delivery van, Microcabs is also seriously looking at a private passenger version in response to people telling Jostins that they could use a vehicle like this "to run about in."
Regardless of which technologies mature first -- hydrogen fuel cells or battery-dominate drives -- Jostins believes he has versatile, adaptable, modularized platform that can be powered by multiple energy sources.
"We have an electric vehicle. You can push that along with hydrogen, biodiesel, LPG or plug it in at the mains."
He pointed out that up until recently most people didn't consider electric vehicles all that practical, but now the G-Wiz (Reva) electric car has demonstrated they can meet many of the transportation needs of Londoners. He estimates the company has sold upwards of 700 vehicles in the city.
He also sees the growth mobile phones as helping speed this adaptation because people have become accustomed to using them during the day and plug-in them in a night, just like an electric car, though there are still issues with on-street charging that need to be resolved in London.
"Our goal here is... clean air. However that comes is great."
To learn more about Microcab Industries and its plans for the immediate future, be sure to listen to our interview in its entirety. You can do that using either of the two MP3 players above or by downloading the file to your computer hard drive for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. The URL for the 9 MB audio file is: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/john_jostins.mp3.