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London’s electric taxis – older than you think

Summary:
Although most people suppose that electric taxicabs are the newest thing, the first ones took to the streets of London on August 19th, 1897. Walter Bersey's electric cabs could reach 9-12 mph. They were competing against Hansom cabs and other horse-drawn vehicles, and had to meet the same rules, including the ability to ascend London's steepest hill. They took two passengers and were illuminated in and out, which made shy passengers feel as if they were under the spotlight. Their customers reputedly included the Prince of Wales. Motorized vehicles had been limited by the "red flag" law which required non-horse-drawn vehicles to be preceded by a person carrying a red flag, a law presumably passed after lobbying by the horse carriage industry. When it was repealed in 1896, motorized traffic

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Although most people suppose that electric taxicabs are the newest thing, the first ones took to the streets of London on August 19th, 1897. Walter Bersey's electric cabs could reach 9-12 mph. They were competing against Hansom cabs and other horse-drawn vehicles, and had to meet the same rules, including the ability to ascend London's steepest hill. They took two passengers and were illuminated in and out, which made shy passengers feel as if they were under the spotlight. Their customers reputedly included the Prince of Wales.

Motorized vehicles had been limited by the "red flag" law which required non-horse-drawn vehicles to be preceded by a person carrying a red flag, a law presumably passed after lobbying by the horse carriage industry. When it was repealed in 1896, motorized traffic began to spread, and the London to Brighton Run was inaugurated in celebration. While electric Berseys took part, they couldn't manage the whole 60-mile run, and had to go part of the way by train.

Their batteries were lifted out hydraulically, and could be replaced in 2-3 minutes at London's single charging station. They were known as "Hummingbirds" because of the sound they made, and because of their yellow and black trim. Unfortunately, wear and tear took their toll, and after 6 months they became noisier and vibrated more. Their heavy weight (2 tonnes) wore out the tires too quickly, and they frequently broke down. This, plus the often-faster speed of their horse-drawn rivals, led them to be phased out after two years,

Bersey, however, remained optimistic for a great future for electricity. He declared, “There is no apparent limit to the hopes and expectations of the electric artisans….in short [it] is the natural power which shall be the most intimate and effective of all man’s assets.”

He was ahead of his time. Once again electric-powered taxis are making their appearance on London's streets, in greater numbers every year. It makes obvious sense to use a power that can be generated from a variety of sources, including environmentally friendly ones. It makes even more sense not to foul up city air with the exhaust fumes of petrol and diesel engines. It should be pointed out that even horses polluted, leaving thousands of tons of their excrement fouling London's streets, harbouring flies and diseases.

Electric ones are cleaner, quieter, and more efficient. They are also safer, and carry no inflammable liquids. Range and reliability used to be their main drawback until Elon Musk made it his mission to solve those problems, which he did. I've been driving a Tesla for nearly 5 years now, and my experience is that it feels a world away from driving a fossil fuel car. When electric propulsion is combined with autonomy (self-driving) capability, it will represent another leap into a more convenient and less impactful world. There will be fewer accidents, too.

As we stand on the edge of a transformed world of transport, it is appropriate to pay tribute to the early pioneer, Walter Bersey, who put his electric taxis onto the street on this day 122 years ago.

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