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Battery Electric Buses: The Innovative Technology That's Re-energizing Urban Mass Transit

Updated: May 27, 2020

Zero emissions, quiet rides, and quality-of-life benefits are luring cities to get on board

Published by FastCo.: Read the article

November 11, 2019

This electric bus is the first step in Santa Monica’s transition to a zero-emissions, clean energy fleet by 2030. Image courtesy of Cummins.

It’s rare for the unveiling of a municipal bus to draw a celebratory crowd or inspire enthusiasm of any sort. But that was the mood at a ceremony in Santa Monica, CA, in August when Big Blue Bus, the city’s public-transportation agency, rolled out its first zero-emission, battery electric bus (BEB) as part of a pilot plan to deliver an entirely clean-energy, zero-emission fleet of 200 by 2030.

Tech-savvy onlookers marveled at the BEB’s innovative features, particularly its high-speed, over-the-air connectivity, which allows for remote diagnostic analysis, enabling on-the-go software upgrades, as well as real-time vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-environment communication, and the ability to interconnect with other transit systems. Such attributes demonstrate how the so-called Internet of Things will help the agency build an efficient fleet, reduce maintenance costs, provide safer streets, and create greater sustainability.

Two weeks later, a similar scene played out in Indianapolis as its transit agency, IndyGo, launched the nation’s first battery electric bus rapid-transit route. Thousands of passengers waited in line to ride the28 BEBs currently in operation on its Red Line, marveling at the smooth, quiet ride. Others raved about the ability to read, catch up on news, or simply decompress as opposed to being stuck behind the wheel in traffic. “This is like an amusement park where there is a brand-new ride,” one passenger enthused.

These watershed moments are just the latest examples of how innovation in electric bus technology is helping to advance public transportation in groundbreaking ways. It is also turning zero-emission transit into an attractive choice in cities where many people may have personal cars and ample parking options near their work location. Transit agencies in Seattle, Chicago, and New York City (where the city’s MTA has begun taking delivery of 60 BEBs over the coming year), have bolstered their fleets with electric buses recently, and all plan to convert entirely to zero-emission electrified fleets within 20 years.

The initial lure of BEB technology was to help meet state or local carbon-neutrality targets. “Indianapolis has made a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050, and our transit system is playing a major role in reducing emissions through electrification,” says Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s vice president of public affairs. But as the ancillary effects of electric-bus transportation come into focus, cities are finding the quality-of-life benefits equally enticing.

“Aside from improving local air quality, electrification is a solid strategy to begin addressing climate change, especially when the power is green,” Luellen says. “And electric transit buses offer a quiet, clean, smooth ride, which has been a major bonus as transit agencies increasingly focus on rider experience to keep customers.”

Pedestrians and cyclists benefit as well since the buses do not blast out exhaust and noise when idling or pulling into traffic. “The Red Line runs through the densest corridor in the state of Indiana, neighborhoods that are bustling with activity at sidewalk cafes and shops,” Luellen observes. “Cleaner air and quieter streets make our best neighborhoods even better.”

Back in Santa Monica, the BEB’s day in the sun didn’t last long. After a quick moment basking in glory, the city’s most-celebrated Big Blue Bus was promptly put into revenue service, wending its way through the Westside between UCLA and Venice, its rear emblazoned with the slogan zero emissions for people, place and planet. “It was a great day,” says Ed King, director of transit services.

Power Players

Of course, Big Blue Bus did not get its best-in-class pilot vehicle up and running in a mere three years—to meet a city-council mandate—on its own. King is quick to credit the agency’s partners GILLIG, a leading manufacturer of heavy-duty transit buses in the U.S., and Cummins, a global power leader, which developed the electrified powertrain on which BEB runs. The agency has longstanding relationships with both companies, with GILLIG already having built two-thirds of the agency’s 200 buses. “Our partnership with GILLIG and Cummins goes back almost seven years now, and it’s about the reliability of the fleet they’ve provided and the serviceability and support that we receive from both companies,” King says. “We wanted to move into this very methodically, as the technology in our industry is very new.”

GILLIG CEO Derek Maunus points out that battery electric power, in general, may have reached an evolutionary tipping point. He credits this to technological advances, funding, and increasing public appetite for sustainable transit options. “I think transit has always led sustainable practices,” he says. “In the past, the technology was solely driven by grants; now, it has evolved to where it’s [becoming] more feasible, and transit authorities and local politicians see that there’s an opportunity.”

For Julie Furber, vice president of electrified power at Cummins, it’s a matter of the right technology coming at the right time. “Technology, regulation, and climate change are all coming together, and I think the time is now in transit for electric buses,” she says. “The costs are coming into feasibility and have gotten to a place where there actually is a payback. And the technology is mature enough that it’s ready for prime time—to be out on the road.”

Garet Archibald and Kanwulia Gwam, Cummins service engineers, working on site at Big Blue Bus to help integrate the new battery electric bus into the agency’s fleet. Image courtesy of Cummins.

The Road Ahead

Technological advances notwithstanding, there are speed bumps that Santa Monica—or any public-transportation system—must overcome before it adopts battery-electric technology on a large scale, starting with the upfront costs for the buses themselves.

The city must also consider the upgrades in charging infrastructure that will be required if the agency chooses to electrify its entire fleet. Another challenge lies in optimizing the power draw from the local utility to achieve the most economical rate. King notes that the agency is working closely with Southern California Edison on future power needs while simultaneously engaging a consultant to devise a master plan to determine range and route structure, different charging options, as well as infrastructure requirements. “Even though there are pundits that say this technology is a lot more expensive than conventional power propulsion systems, you really have to look into the future on sustainability and on operating and maintenance costs,” he says.

For instance, King notes the savings the electric-propulsion system will realize by eliminating oil and transmission-fluid changes, as well as recycling those fluids and filters. He also foresees substantial savings on brake wear, along with an incalculable benefit tied to the bus’s regenerative braking capability. “That will help our motor-coach operators provide a very smooth ride and help with overall customer experience and getting more customers on our system,” he says.

Santa Monica intends to expand the pilot in early 2021 through the purchase of 18 additional battery electric buses. “It is an investment in our community and one that is worthwhile,” King says. “We’re the cornerstone of the city’s effort to become zero emissions by 2030. So this bus and the pilot will help in determining our path forward. Our customers have been asking for us to provide safe, reliable, quieter buses, and this technology achieves that. We think that this technology is really the future of public transportation.”


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