Mass Transit, Green Transit

BYD Electric Bus

Image courtesy of BYD

Mass Transit, Green Transit
| published July 5, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Sometime near the end of 2015 Tesla Motors hopes to have built enough charging stations along U.S. interstate highways and other busy roads to bring 95% or more of Americans the option to drive an all-electric car. Tesla is also building what will become the world’s largest factory and production line for lithium-ion batteries, with a projected output of more batteries from that one plant than all the battery production in the world combined.

Tesla, which is owned by billionaire inventor and developer Elon Musk, also hopes that it is not the only company developing and selling electric cars. In May, Tesla announced that it was making available most of its patents related to its cars and its unique lithium-ion battery system. By sharing its technology—until recently closely guarded—Musk hopes to jumpstart the slow, sometimes sluggish process of automakers going fully emission-free. And if enough smaller companies and vendors, including battery-makers and parts-makers, enter into the electric vehicle marketplace, competition will likely spur both demand and supply.

Tesla’s cars are pricey, and at the moment are generally sold only to wealthy green advocates—a market limitation which Musk hopes to eventually overcome as the cost of EV products and components come down. And Tesla also seeks to lure buyers with its promise of free charging at Tesla stations nationwide (and in Canada) for the foreseeable future. Still, buyers would have to weigh the advantage of a $73,000 car, even if all recharging is free and not one ounce of gasoline is required. It becomes a matter of return for most car-buyers, not an altruistic gesture toward a cleaner planet.

Eventually, as EV vehicles become more prevalent and their sticker price comes down, and as charging stations become more common, a tipping point will be reached—and at that time auto-buyers will be able to easily envision and calculate that return.

But what mass transportation? How far into the future will it be before we see all-electric buses and shuttles in our cities and towns?

The answer is, well, now. Several major U.S. cities have already invested in their first all-electric buses, and if the experiment in these towns goes well—as advocates of zero-emission buses hope—many more American cities are planning to begin the conversion soon.

Back in early spring of this year, Reno, Nevada deployed four large electric buses into its fleet of gas-powered transit vehicles. The four zero-emission buses—manufactured by Proterra of Greenville, South Carolina—follow a circular route, roughly six miles long (three miles out, three miles back in) in central Reno. After 20 minutes, on the return end of their downtown journey, the buses pull into a charging station, where they hook into the grid. After only about three minutes, the battery cells are topped off and the large buses move onward along their circuit. The process is repeated throughout the day and into the night. Reno officials have already been so pleased with the performance of the electric bus, they have indicated they may buy dozens more next year.

Proterra has also sold its electric buses to cities as diverse as San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Joaquin, Nashville and Tallahassee. It hopes to find success marketing its buses to other municipalities as well.

The buses are quiet—a plus for any city looking to reduce noise pollution in central, urban areas—and at 42 feet in length and 102 inches in width, they are large enough and robust enough to accommodate up to 77 people. Proterra’s website describes the passenger capacity as “40 seated/37 standing,” meaning it can hold just as many people as a typical diesel-powered behemoth. And the buses are anything but sluggish. Proterra’s model can reach speeds of 60 mph, but for most cities and towns this speed would be unnecessary (no guarantees if Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves happen to climb on board); typical city driving would rarely exceed 35 or 40. Most importantly, the buses are emission-free. Like most large buses, acceleration is lumbering; about 14 seconds to reach a speed of 30 mile per hour.

Some advocates of lower-emission and zero-emission vehicles have pointed out for years that the logical place to start is with mass transit. In cities where rail systems—above, below, or on ground—are not an option, or where those systems have geographic limitations, electric buses and electric shuttles would seem to be an easy remedy. Cities and towns can also see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of savings.

Traditional diesel-powered buses can run between $250,000 and $350,000 each, but will—depending on performance and maintenance—drink a lot of fuel in their lifetime on city streets. Electric buses are pricey—about $850,000 each—but by cutting out the constant need to refill those huge diesel tanks, most cities will see a savings within just a few years.

And cities and towns with bus-based mass transit systems tend to have routes well under 30 miles. That means that large buses make ideal candidates to operate on an electric-charging station grid—much more so than the typical homeowner or apartment dweller whose daily travels may include a wide array of deviations. Proterra’s lithium titanate batteries charge quickly, and cities can construct single-stop charging stations near public facilities along the route, or deploy smaller charging kiosks at curbside stops and pullouts. Charging equipment is designed to be user-friendly and safe for bus drivers.

Proterra is not alone in the business of electric bus manufacturing. Motiv Power Systems has been building and marketing its electric buses to school systems, another component of county and city governments looking for mass transit systems that can pay off quickly. Motiv also specializes in a conversion kits—a package where transit authorities can easily retrofit certain types of older buses with an all-electric system. This saves local governments from spending the hundreds of thousand needed to buy brand new buses while also delivering the ability to reduce fuel costs.

There is also the Chinese conglomerate BYD, which has been making all-electric buses for some time, including at its plant located in Lancaster, California, a suburb near Los Angeles. BYD’s eBus, which is 40 feet long and can carry upwards of 60 passengers, can travel 150 miles on a single charge. BYD, which in its American marketing stands for “Build Your Dreams,” also makes electric cars, solar panels and solar power systems, batteries, energy storage technologies and LED products. In June, BYD sold two zero-emission buses to Edmonton, Canada, and those all-electric buses now have regular routes within the city. For the next few months passengers in Edmonton can ride for free as long as they agree to participate in an ongoing online survey about the quiet buses. Edmonton Transit System officials hope to take all that rider data and use it to make the case for a much larger purchase of dozens of zero-emission buses. If the electric buses prove popular and cost-effective, Edmonton may eventually begin the systematic replacement of its entire fleet of 950 diesel-powered buses with new all-electric models.

Only weeks before BYD’s entry into Edmonton, the bus-maker also launched a pilot program in Piracicaba, Brazil. BYD also has plans to sell electric buses in several cities in India, Pakistan, China and Brazil (including Rio de Janeiro). In Altoona, Pennsylvania, BYD engineers are seeking to demonstrate to Federal officials and investors that a bus can operate continuously off the power of a single battery. BYD’s bus has already passed a variety of tests for structural integrity and durability—important criteria if BYD is to receive contracts and meet the requirements for certain Federal Transit Administration funding guidelines. BYD uses a 324 kilowatt-hour iron-phosphate battery.

At a huge ceremony back in April, California Governor Jerry Brown endorsed BYD’s efforts—attending the unveiling of one of BYD’s flagship electric buses.

Other major companies are looking into the development of electric buses for their next big product, including Siemens and Volvo. Volvo has been making all-electric buses for numerous cities worldwide, but its current scheme is to build smartroads—streets and boulevards hardwired with transmittable energy from the local grid. That means that buses can be capturing their charge at any time they are passing over roads prewired with that wireless energy source. Such a system would enable buses in busy cities to run more-or-less continuously, without stops at recharging stations. Engineers see such a system as being most advantageous to large, crowded cities, or any venue where round-the-clock transit is required: tourist meccas such as Orlando or New York, or cities playing host to big events such as Olympic Games, World Cup Soccer, or Super Bowls.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Score One For Tesla Motors; Thursday Review staff; July 3, 2014.

Tesla’s Open-Source Gamble; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday review; June 15, 2014.