Battery-electric motorcoaches slowly making inroads

With thousands of electric transit buses whirring around the world, the first production battery-powered motorcoach debuted at UMA Motorcoach Expo in St. Louis this year on the way to its first test runs.

Electricity, however, may be powering up to a third of new motorcoaches within a decade.

Several hundred electric transit buses were sold last year in North America, said Paul Soubry, president and chief executive officer of New Flyer Industries Inc. in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“In the coach environment electric is negligible,” Soubry said. “I am not sure there is ever going to be replacement of the conventional market, but clearly there is a niche where all-electric makes sense. When we get out five and 10 years, I think 25 to 30 percent of what we sell is going to be all-electric.”

Chinese manufacturer BYD displayed what it called “the world’s first 45-foot battery-electric over-the-road coach” at this year’s Motorcoach Expo. Its batteries can power the bus 200 miles on a charge.

“The market for this is pretty much as a commuter coach,” said Bobby Hill, regional sales manager for BYD. “This type of coach will be going to the Antelope Valley (California) Transit Authority. It also is good for large corporations to use as employee shuttles, especially if they have campuses across town or bring in workers from park-and-rides 50 to 75 miles out.”

New Flyer has delivered more than 6,400 electric transit buses in North America over the past two decades, said David Warren, director of sustainable transportation. These included diesel-electric hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell electrics, trolley electrics energized by overhead power lines and battery electrics.

All but diesel-electrics are considered zero-emission vehicles, he said, and New Flyer delivered 241 of them last year, up from 144 in 2015.

BYD was founded in 1995 to manufacture batteries and employs 180,000 people at 22 factories around the world.

“Batteries are our bread and butter,” Hill said. “They got into building vehicles to showcase the battery technology.”

BYD has built more than 5,000 electric buses globally, making it “by far the most popular electric transit vehicle on the planet,” according to a company press release.           BYD’s North American operations are headquartered in Los Angeles. It manufactures batteries and buses in Lancaster, Calif.

Companies selling motorcoaches in North America almost universally claim to be developing electric versions of their vehicles.

Temsa will be ready to receive orders by the end of 2017 with its four different electric models designed for transit and intercity transport purposes, said Deniz Cetin, an account manager at the company headquarters in Adana, Turkey.

“Some of those transit vehicles have already started servicing as a test unit in Turkey’s local municipalities,” Cetin said.

Temsa’s three electric transit buses have specified ranges of 37 to 155 miles. The intercity bus has a 155-mile range.

“We are planning to get one or two of our electric vehicle models Americanized within the next two or three years,” Cetin said.

Motor Coach Industries (MCI), a subsidiary of New Flyer, announced in January that it is developing an electric version of its J4500 model for the commuter shuttle market. MCI also offers its D-Series coaches with compressed natural gas and diesel-electric power.

ABC Companies also is looking at manufacturing fully electric motorcoaches in the future, possibly in another year and a half, ABC President and CEO Dane Cornell said.

Spanish coachbuilder Irizar has been manufacturing electric transit buses for the past couple years for use in European cities, and it is possible the company will someday introduce them in the U.S.

Battery-electric power for motorcoaches  “is still at the very early stage in research-and-development-trial environments,” Soubry said.

With New Flyer’s experience and its acquisition of MCI in late 2015, he said, “We think we are a natural to come in. We are taking what we have learned at New Flyer and applying it to a motorcoach. Our ability to cooperate and collaborate has been fantastic.”

Electric motor technology was quite refined by the end of the 19th century. Battery-powered automobiles were popular until superior gasoline engines were developed in the first decade of the 20th century. Battery buses and delivery trucks were common into the 1910s.

Even on a bus, “The torque of the motor is instantaneous,” said BYD’s Hill, “almost jet-fighter exhilaration.”

Limited battery storage capacity and a high weight-to-energy ratio stalled development of over-the-road electrics until petroleum prices and occasional shortages rose toward the end of the 20th century. Battery capacity continues to define the bus-motorcoach category.

“The most logical place to start was transit,” Soubry said. “You know where you are going, how many people you’re carrying, the pace and the range.”

For long-distance coach travel, he said, “I think we are going to see the continued development of diesel and some niche areas where natural gas might make sense.”

But battery technology is well matched for transit and commuter coach service.     “There is a range of operators that have very unique, defined profiles. Look at the San Francisco Bay area where they are shuttling employees,” he said.

“They have a defined route and dwell times that are quite large — in between and after runs and overnight — for charging batteries. With the lack of need for a baggage area, that allows us to be very creative with the size of the batteries and the charging strategy.”

Hill said battery technology is changing all the time. “It seems we get an increase every three or four months. Several years ago the 40-foot BYD bus had a range of about 116 miles. Now that bus is right at 200 miles.”

Higher battery efficiency could overcome the weight burden of extending range by adding batteries. With current technology, the specifications for a 40-foot New Flyer Xcelsior transit bus list a curb weight of 31,000 pounds for the electric model, 5,000 pounds more than the diesel version.

Charging technologies also could enable electric motorcoaches to roam farther.

“Maybe we won’t see charging like we originally thought we would, where we drive-charge, drive-charge,” Soubry said. “We are starting to play with range extenders, whether it be a fuel cell or a small diesel or gasoline engine that allows the vehicle to charge on the fly. Then we rely mostly on charging at the base depot overnight where electricity is off-peak and low-cost.”

Wide deployment of charging infrastructure will extend range, too, Hill said.

“It will take infrastructure to put charging ports and devices at truck stops along the highway, major hotel chains and places that charter groups typically stop,” he said.

Warren from New Flyer said the company’s battery-electric buses can be quick-charged at an equipped bus stop.

“This capability requires only six minutes of re-charge for every hour of service operation,” he said. “Buses can operate continuously around the clock where charging infrastructure is placed directly on-route.”

Another mileage extender is wireless on-the-fly charging through induction coils embedded in the pavement and the bottom of the bus or coach. An inductive charging system was installed last year in a Scania bus and at a bus terminal in Sweden.

Suppliers said the batteries on the transit bus could provide up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of travel and be recharged in six to seven minutes while parked above the coil.

A converted Volvo bus was tested in the Netherlands in 2012. Its batteries received overnight charges that were supplemented by “top-up” charges each time it visited an inductive charging station, giving it a daily range of 288 kilometers (179 miles).

A new electric bus currently costs $250,000 to $350,000 more than a comparable diesel bus, Warren said. However, he said, “Under certain conditions New Flyer does project up to $400,000 in energy savings compared to diesel over the 12-year life of the bus.”

Operating savings also are substantial, he said.

“The maintenance advantages of battery-electric buses are primarily attributed to the elimination of engine and oil filter changes, no emission system, no transmission and less brake wear due to the electric motor’s regenerative braking capability,” Warren said.

“New Flyer projects $100,000 to $200,000 maintenance savings over the 12-year life of the bus, depending on the duty cycle.”

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