19 August 2019

Geely takes British backdoor ride into e-car contention

Geely chief Li Shufu {李書福} has more than a passing interest in Britain. He not only saved Manganese Bronze Holdings, the maker of London’s iconic Hackney taxicabs, from bankruptcy by paying £11 million (US$18.32 million) for its remaining shares last year, Geely also runs a subsidiary marque brand named Englon {英倫}, with a website plastered in London landmarks like Tower Bridge and Big Ben.

It didn’t go unnoticed. British Prime Minister David Cameron went so far as to meet Li during his visit to China last year and thank him for restoring Manganese Bronze’s production.

And now Li’s British bond is deepening with the acquisition of Emerald Automotive, a small British e-car maker. Geely announced the deal at the end of last month, but didn’t spell out the price or other specifics. Still, some reports say that Geely will invest no less than US$200 million in Emerald to develop electric vehicles.

Geely has steered clear of electric technologies but the “go green” bandwagon is one that it cannot afford to miss. Swallowing a startup like Emerald can be a quick way to bulk up on core technology and intellectual property.

Emerald’s website shows that the firm has already launched in Britain and the United States a lightweight electric t-001 van, featuring “range-extender technologies”. These allow an auxiliary engine to drive an electric generator and recharge the battery when it runs down, increasing the all-electric range (AER) to up to 644 kilometers. Instead of powering the vehicle, the engine is only designed to charge the battery, meaning it can be much smaller. The technology is seen as a viable way to increase the AER and has been adopted by major automakers like Audi.

Emerald’s e-van is also about the same size as Manganese Bronze’s taxicabs, making them a good addition to the public transport system in urban areas.

This dovetails with London’s plan to switch the city’s taxi fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2018. Li was quoted as saying that Emerald’s technical team will be integrated with the Manganese Bronze squad to develop e-models as London replaces its 30,000 fuel-burning taxis over the next four years.

It’s also likely that the overseas e-van and taxi examples in major cities like London can filter back into China where local authorities are crafting new incentives and sweeteners to promote e-vehicles.

Soon after Geely bought 20 percent of Manganese Bronze in 2006, some of the firm’s signature black cabs started rolling off lines in small batches at a factory in Shanghai. The cabs, bearing the Englon logo, are running on the streets of some cities in Zhejiang province like Ningbo, Geely’s home base. The exotic vehicles are a favorite with business travelers thanks to the spacious interior and larger trunk. Geely can certainly replicate the strategy with e-cars.

But a common obstacle faced by all e-car makers is the lack of charging facilities. And, the fact that Emerald’s European format is not compatible with Chinese standards may complicate the issue.

Another challenge is fierce competition. Nissan and Metrocab are already in the race to supply e-taxis to London, with trials in operation since this year. Metrocab is co-developed by Ecotive and British race-car maker Frazer-Nash. 

Several other manufacturers, including Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, have also hinted their interest in offering plug-in cars for the city. Emerald is a minnow compared with industrial giants like Nissan, which has the best-selling e-car brand in Britain. And, Manganese Bronze’s dominance of the city’s taxi fleet is in peril when old models are giving way to greener ones.

Geely can save a lot of research time with the latest acquisition, but it may need to rush to launch e-taxis before competing offerings hit the street.  

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



EJ Insight writer

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