Battery-electric motorcoaches have arrived. A new BYD double-decker is shuttling employees for a San Francisco tech company. Van Hool is assembling a prototype North American motorcoach in Belgium that will be in testing here by the end of the year.
And in the snowy climes of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, a Motor Coach Industries prototype has been tooling around to test battery life extremes amid blizzards, hurricane-force winds, nearly constant temperatures below zero and more than 300 inches of snowfall.
Not long ago the electric motorcoach was just a rumor on the show floor at Motorcoach EXPO. This year it was a highlight of manufacturer announcements. What happened?
“It is market awareness, primarily, as well as technology enhancements,” said Brent Maitland, vice president of marketing and product planning at MCI. “California has mainly been driving the train.”
California regulators have set ambitious goals for conversion to zero-emission vehicles, so transit systems and private operators are moving ahead in purchase planning, he said. Meanwhile, the presence of thousands of electric automobiles on the road “is starting to de-mystify electric technology.”
Thom Peebles, vice president of marketing at ABC Companies, the North American distributor for Van Hool, says technology improvements have also been key.
“We have seen advancement in recharge capabilities, we have seen battery capacity increase dramatically in density per weight and with that an associated battery cost decline. We are able to get more performance and more driving range at less cost.”
While battery-electric vehicles have entered mass production, though, batteries are still evolving.
“The technology doesn’t necessarily change, but the chemistry gets more refined so the batteries become denser,” said Bobby Hill, vice president of North American sales for China-based BYD Coach and Bus. “They take up less square footage than they did a year ago, and we are still able to go further.”
But how far will they get you?
Battery packs large enough to handle a motorcoach occupy a lot of space that is otherwise reserved for baggage; that prevents the use of a battery-electric coach on multi-day tours and airport shuttles.
The current battery driving range, though, will not take a motorcoach on a tour of national parks, likely. But it will serve other applications within the 200-mile range it allows between charges, Maitland said.
“That puts us in the market with the people who have been asking for the product: public transit agencies with commuter applications and private companies who are doing employee transportation,” he said. “Generally they are getting people from a suburb into a city center in the morning and then back out at the end of the day. “
A 200-mile range also lends itself to local tours, Maitland said. There isn’t currently much demand in that niche—but there could eventually be supply and demand.
MCI is testing its electric motorcoach, J4500e, and plans to apply the technology to its D45 CRTe LE (low entry) commuter coach.
Commuter shuttle service often leaves a mid-day period that could be used for recharging, doubling the daily service range. The 77-passenger, 45-foot BYD C10MS double-decker is traveling 180 miles on a charge in real-world service, Hill said.
“They have done some longer range testing on it, and potentially they could do two or three trips and run it 180 miles in the morning, do a mid-day charge and run the same distance at night.”
An obstacle to battery-electric coaches for some operators will be the restricted baggage space, said J.P. Pelletier, vice president of engineering at MCI. “We are used to multi-purpose vehicles, which is easy with a combustion engine. If you want to use a coach one day as a convention shuttle and the next day take it across country, that is something you need to consider.”
Accumulating experience with battery-electric vehicles is also revealing the complexity of predicting range potential. The energy density of the batteries is not the only significant factor.
“We look at the duty cycle of the vehicle, the environment in terms of road grade, temperature, speeds, starts and stops and the parasitic loads of things such as opening and closing the doors,” Pelletier said. “The power used for propulsion can be less than half the power the vehicle needs if heating and cooling are needed.”
Operator training also will be a key, he said, since the driver can improve fuel economy by 30 percent.