Few current automotive executives can match Carl-Peter Forster's knowledge of the European industry.
Forster started at BMW in 1986 but he is best known for his eight-year stint at General Motors, where he served as president and CEO of the U.S. automaker's European arm from 2006 to 2009. After that he joined Tata Motors to work with Jaguar Land Rover.
Since 2013, he has been on the board of Geely Automotive Holdings and Volvo Cars. In 2015, he was given chairmanship of Geely's London Electric Vehicle Co., which makes the new hybrid London taxi.
He also is on the board of Gordan Murray Design, which is developing a structural carbon fiber vehicle under the name iStream, which debuted at the Tokyo auto show in 2015.
Forster discussed the challenges for the taxi manufacturer, which is looking to expand globally, in an interview with Automotive News Europe correspondent Nick Gibbs. ANE is a sister publication of Plastics News.
Q: You plan to export the hybrid London taxi from the UK to other countries in Europe. Do you envisage big numbers?
Forster: We want to export sizable numbers, for us anyway. Among the first orders placed was one for 250 vehicles from a company that provides services to disabled people in Amsterdam.
Q: Have you started production of the taxi in China?
Forster: No. The factory is under construction. It's a greenfield site about three hours south of Shanghai. We will start preproduction next year and in 2019 we will have vehicles on the market. It's three times the capacity [in China, compared with the United Kingdom plant]. The U.K. plant is 20,000 to 30,000, if you really push.
Q: Are the European and Chinese taxi markets similar?
Forster: No. Taxis are very localized in China and there are always differences due to the local regulations. We will start the rollout of the hybrid taxi with large urban areas of Europe, then Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Beijing. Then a massive rollout in China.
Q: Aren't local taxis in China very cheap?
Forster: Yes, but the pressure is also to make them zero emissions. Ours will be a luxury taxi with more capacity, not just for two people. We believe there is a substantial market, otherwise we wouldn't have invested in a factory. It's not our only product. We also produce an LCV and other derivatives in China.
Q: Would one of those derivatives be a private car?
Forster: No. All of our vehicles are for commercial use. The next variant will be a commercial van for city deliveries. The big advantage of our aluminum technology is that you can change the shape and size of the body with relatively little investment compared with a steel body.
Q: The pricing of vans and taxis is very competitive. Your vehicle is expensive. Are you relying on cities to create zero-emissions zones?
Forster: You say it's expensive, but it depends on what vehicle we are comparing it with. This is not a cheap powertrain. Electric with a range-extender isn't cheap, but it's good on total cost of ownership. A London cabbie who structures his day so that he drives mostly electric can save about 100 pounds ($134) a week.
Q: The engineers who developed your platform are mostly former employees of Lotus. Lotus is now owned by Geely. Are there any synergies to be had here?
Forster: Yes, but we have no idea as to the extent. The team will be happy to help if Lotus requires support.
Q: Is it helpful that Lotus uses bonded aluminum technology in the same way?
Forster: It is useful because they started this technology. Aluminum is used in many shapes and forms, but in Europe typically it's welded rather than bonded. I was head of manufacturing at BMW when Z8 production was ramped up and that used an aluminum spaceframe, but it was welded. Welding is well understood. A mechanical engineer can define welding and you can calculate it. With bonding, using adhesives, you need the confidence that the simulation reflects actual life. Lotus knows bonded structures, understands how they crash, for example. A famous sports car manufacturer [Aston Martin] does same. All Formula One cars have bonded structures. It's a UK capability. Hardly anyone else does it.
Q: What's the advantage of bonding?
Forster: It's cheaper and lighter. Welding normally introduces heat, which means distortions. You need to understand the process.