LANCASTER, CALIF.-Only one diesel transit bus consumes the equivalent of 10,440 gallons of gasoline a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Replacing that diesel-burning transit bus with an electric bus has some obvious benefits. Electric buses improve local air quality, because the particles from burning diesel are not present. We had, according to the Union of Concerned ScientistsAn electric bus runs longer than a diesel car wherever you plug it into the US grid, even if you’re plugging it into a grid fed by fossil fuels.
In the desert north of Los Angeles, a Chinese company called BYD (short for “Build Your Dreams”) is banking on transit managers thinking about this. BYD offered Ars a tour of its Lancaster site in July, and we saw a bustling factory floor filled with 900 workers who were building, welding, designing, and painting about 90 buses in various states of completion. The company’s workforce, recently consolidated, is expected to grow to 1,200 in the near future.
Until now, BYD has put more than 250 electric buses on US roads, and, as of mid-July, the company had more than 400 orders in the pipeline. That is a significant number of buses in this limited company: Last December, Reuters estimated that only 300 public buses on US roads are electric. Of course, BYD’s numbers include public and private electric buses, while the Reuters tally only covers public buses. However, the numbers show how the electric bus industry is growing aggressively, considering the size of the market six months ago.
BYD isn’t the only company making electric buses for North America: companies like Proterra and New Flyer Industries are also churning out their fair share of battery-powered vehicles. As cities, counties, companies, and colleges try to move away from diesel, factories like BYD stand to grow rapidly.
Let’s build a bus
In his eyes, buses seem like prime candidates for battery technology. Public buses move slowly, with no real need to go faster than 65mph. They have set routes, so “range anxiety” is not an issue. They frequent dense urban areas where the quiet hum of a battery is preferable to the roar of an engine.
The downside of swapping a diesel bus fleet for a battery-electric one is that bus routes may need to be rearranged to allow for one bus to take off while another is charging.
Electric buses aren’t cheap up front, either (they can run between $100,000 to $300,000 more than their diesel competitors), but they still require some maintenance.
BYD has made some interesting choices to meet early demand for electric buses, down to battery chemistry. The company uses lithium iron phosphate batteries instead of the lithium cobalt based batteries preferred by the auto industry. Metal-phosphate batteries are not replaceable, so for a while, BYD did not build them with a cooling system (although that is not the case now). Iron-phosphate batteries are lower voltage than comparable cobalt-based batteries, but there is still concern about disposal. As BYD Senior Project Manager David Trimble told Ars, “you can crush ’em, burn ’em, stab ’em, sit ’em in the heat, and whatever happens. We’ve thrown this test out ourselves: throw ’em em are burned. ; they are not changeable.”
For a community looking for the safest way to transport thousands of citizens every day, that’s a huge advantage.
Putting together the bones of the bus
In our tour of the BYD factory, Trimble walked us exactly as we would a bus. BYD’s smallest car is 30 feet long, and the largest is a 60-foot bus (that is, it has a section like an accordion in the middle so that the bus can take more corners easily).
Paint and interior
Every city has its own bus design, so BYD service is very customized. Trimble called it the “West Coast Customs” of the bus. When placing a bus order, typically the operator will work with the in-house planner to get the right look. Sales people and designers work in offices above the factory floor.
Another thing that ends up depending on the customer is the range. BYD buses and trucks usually have a range of 150 to 250 km, although longer ranges are possible, Trimble told Ars. “Some customers want all the crazy electronics, and that’s too short,” he said.
“The good thing about electric buses, or electric vehicles in general, is technology is always evolving,” Trimble added. “So let’s say we have a bus now that does 250 miles, pretty much a year from now that will be obsolete.” Transit companies that need really long distances may not be able to place orders now, but in a year, they will be, Trimble is sure.
The bus batteries, it should be noted, are made on the road in Lancaster at a separate factory of BYD Energy.
After the bus is filled, it moves to the chassis line. On an electric bus, the engine is smaller than you’ll find on a diesel. No transmission, no driveshaft. That’s part of what makes electric motors so easy to maintain. Instead, the chassis line houses the motor control unit, cooling systems for the control unit, and a low-voltage battery to power the bus’s auxiliary systems.
The most important component on an electric bus is arguably the battery, which BYD covers with a 12-year warranty. Those 12 years are “basically the life of the bus,” Trimble said, and in the interim, if an agency maintenance crew finds a problem with the bus related to the battery, BYD comes out and replaces the battery. that is free.
The horsepower on a BYD bus is also a customizable thing, and Trimble said one of their models has 215hp, which is not unusual for a bus.
As mentioned above, BYD just started adding cooling systems to their batteries. The purpose is not to prevent fire, but to keep the battery at a better temperature while it works.
The final assembly is the line that makes the bus look like a bus. This level is very unique to the bus you order, so it may take longer to complete.
Before the buses are sent to their buyers, they are collected, tested, and sent through quality control.
On the ground during our trip there are several buses bound for Stanford University, Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and BYD’s hometown, Lancaster.
Buses in Lancaster are controlled by the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA), and while that may be a completely unfamiliar bus system to someone living outside of Southern California, AVTA is on the verge of making history. According to BYD’s Public Relations Contact, Pam Clark, AVTA will likely become the first major transit agency to convert its bus system to be entirely electric.
AVTA ordered 79 buses from BYD and it will be possible to put the last one into operation at the end of this year or at the beginning of 2019. The only competition that AVTA has at this point is from cities in China. “I think it’s like Sputnik, the race against China to go all-electric, and AVTA has been leading that charge for a while,” Clark told Ars.
After testing the buses, they were sent to their new homes. If the customer is nearby, BYD will often simply hire a driver to take the bus to his new home.
But what if BYD is delivering across the country? Currently, the country’s charging infrastructure is on the verge of being able to support long-distance drivers for bus deliveries. Small buses can be taken out, if necessary. Additionally, “If there’s any 60-footer that has to go a long way, we’ll have a truck and a generator with a hook up,” Trimble explained. “And so we’ll drive and follow and charge it and once it goes down we’ll pull it off somewhere and charge it again.”
It’s a complicated circus to deliver a bus, but after the detailed work of building the thing, delivery can be the easiest job.