Are electric buses working out in the U.S.?

With fossil fuel prices soaring all over the world, more and more people are turning to all-electric vehicles. 

Even in the small Illinois university towns of Urbana and Champaign, where I live, the once-familiar howl of the New Flyer D 40 LFs is disappearing as those buses are being replaced by hybrid and all-electric buses. Even some hydrogen buses are being used here.

But what about the motorcoach side of things? 

Compared to the city transit and the personal sectors, electric motorcoaches are just not catching on as quickly. At least not in North America.

(In my video, I review the pros and cons of several electric vehicles introduced to the North American market, such as MCI D45 CRT LE, MCI J4500 Charge, Van Hool CX45E, Van Hool TDX25E, Temsa TS45E, and BYD C10MS.)

Right now, they’re money-losers

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if Peoria Charter, the bus company that I work for, plans to purchase all-electric coaches. The short answer is no, based on the current abilities of the electric coaches on the market.

Peoria Charter offers at least six line-run services every day to and from the Chicagoland area and major airports. Each of these routes is over 350 miles each day. This means that none of these all-electric buses would come close to getting the job done. 

A 3- to 4-hour recharge in the middle of these routes would double the travel time for our passengers and make it so long that one driver would not have the legal hours to do the trip. 

As for the advertised ranges of these all-electric buses, those numbers are calculated under ideal conditions. Battery capacity can change drastically depending on the temperature outside and will be affected by the weight of 56 passengers with a full bay of luggage. Air conditioning systems are a huge drain on electricity. 

The battery capacity will decrease 2% to 3% each year, which means every year your bus is going to have less and less range.

For a city transit bus that’s doing circles around the community, range is not as big of a deal because it is able to recharge on a recharging pad at each bus stop within minutes of each other. But for a motorcoach that needs to get its passengers to their destination 400 to 500 miles away within a 10-hour window, that doesn’t work.

Numbers don’t work yet

The bottom line is that electric vehicle technology has not caught up to the needs of the motorcoach industry – at least not for companies that run long-distance trips for most of their services. 

Cost is going to play a huge factor. Electric coaches are double the price of a diesel-powered motorcoach, which usually are around $500,000 per coach. That means I could buy two full-sized diesel motor coaches and make the profit of two charter trips for the price of one all-electric motorcoach. 

Another expense is maintenance. You’re going to need an entirely new set of garage equipment and tools to keep these all-electric coaches running. Your mechanics will not be certified to work on your new buses and would basically need to go back to school and get another degree in order to be able to work on these all-electric vehicles.

So how are city transit agencies able to do this and most privately-owned motorcoach companies not? One simple answer is the government. Tax dollars pay for most of their purchases and upkeep. Privately owned motorcoach companies do not have the government giving them money if their businesses are not making a profit. 

Waiting for right technology

I’m not slamming nor am I against all-electric buses. In fact, I am very hopeful that one day we will have an entire fleet of them. I mean, why wouldn’t I want to never have to buy fuel again? 

But at its current stage, all-electric motorcoach technology is not far enough along for many motorcoach companies in North America to survive if they purchased them. 

As a business owner or manager, you would never want to purchase something that’s going to cost you more money than you would make back. 

Some motorcoach companies have contracts and trips that keep them running local shuttles that do not extend past the range of the batteries. More power to them for being among the first companies to own, operate and maintain these new species of motor coaches. 

And personally, I can’t wait for the day to be able to do the same. 

Here’s what some of you had to say on the topic.

Bus & Motorcoach News contributor James Wang is co-owner of Peoria Charter Coach Company and a bus geek who shares his passion for the motorcoach industry on his two YouTube channels, J Wang and Motorcoach World

Read more James Wang’s columns here.


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