Paul Priestman: ‘This is an opportunity for London to lead the world’

Paul Priestman believes London can still lead the way in electric transport innovation  (Paul Priestman)
Paul Priestman believes London can still lead the way in electric transport innovation (Paul Priestman)

You have to be optimistic to be a designer. Your work should be about making things better. Design is about helping people make the right choices. So how can we encourage electric vehicles?

One problem that will arise if every car goes electric is the matter of how we will charge them all ‒ and how long is that going to take? Battery swapping is a solution to that.

I’ve been working in mainland China and out in a smaller city near Beijing I got into an electric taxi. As we pulled away, the driver said he was just going to change the battery. I thought, this is going to take forever. But he pulled into a carpark;  there was a series of shipping containers, he drove into one and, just like a car wash, a robot changed his battery under the car. It took about a minute.

To me, it was like science fiction, but he just sat there looking bored then drove off with 400 miles of charge. It made me think: why couldn’t you do that with London buses?

I saw the same thing in East Africa. The taxis there are little motorbikes: made locally, electric, cheap and clean to run, but they’re also at the heart of a social infrastructure. Shop owners charge batteries, and riders just swap them in and out. It’s a democratisation of power rather than a top-down provision by multinationals, and ‒ as there’s loads of sun ‒ they use solar panels to charge the batteries. It’s a lovely system.

Drivers swapping batteries in electric bikes as part of Rwanda’s Ampersand scheme (Paul Priestman)
Drivers swapping batteries in electric bikes as part of Rwanda’s Ampersand scheme (Paul Priestman)

If we were to adopt a battery swap system like in East Africa here – even if it’s just for last-mile and food deliveries – the newsagents in London are innovative and entrepreneurial enough to make it work like that. In South Korea, battery swapping for scooters uses old telephone boxes. It’s unused infrastructure just sitting there and we have the same in London.

And you could go one step further. If EVs shared a universal battery we could reach a stage at which the batteries weren’t owned but loaned out by the manufacturer and then repurposed. It avoids landfill, concerns over battery age and means swapping in and out is easy.

If scooter delivery companies offered users the option to order a non-petrol bike it would change London almost instantly. In New York you see electric bikes with massive trailers carrying flat pack kitchens.

We could start with much smaller changes using what we’ve already built in a better way. The Tube network could be delivering parcels to the centre of London at night, with hubs at Tube stations for local delivery people rather than having trucks coming in and out of London.

In Korea, Gogoro batteries can be used by multiple different scooters, like this Yadea model, and just swapped as needed (Gogoro)
In Korea, Gogoro batteries can be used by multiple different scooters, like this Yadea model, and just swapped as needed (Gogoro)

You could say it’s disappointing that a designer has to raise these ideas rather than government, councils, manufacturers or transport companies – but design, innovation and technology are needed to make what we have already built work more effectively and help us stop our polluting ways. We recognise the past not to return to it but to create a better future.

I’ve just been in Shanghai. Five years ago, it would have been incredibly polluted. Now the skies are blue. There are things we can learn from there, but I can see there’s also an opportunity for London to lead the world.

Paul Priestman is one of the founders of leading transport design company PriestmanGoode. He’s currently the chairman and creative director of Puli Innovations and director of innovation for China Railways and Rolling Stock company. He will give a keynote speech at the Plug It In Summit on 24 November. Plug It In Summit | Evening Standard