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Electric School Bus Development Has Left the Station

Despite electric vehicles gaining attention, charging options are among the many considerations to weigh

While advancements in electric vehicles are ever-changing, electric companies from other countries discussed ways to make the charging infrastructure more robust and automatic.

During the international Busworld North America Digital Summit earlier this month, the topic of achieving zero emissions took center stage. One session focused on converting diesel buses to electric, and ways to better manage charging needs.

Crijn Bouman, the CEO and co-founder of ROCSYS, an EV charging automation company, commenced the session on June 3. He said that ROCSYS is automating bus battery charging with robotics, and entering the U.S. market, noting that the nationwide initiative to replace aging diesel-powered school bus fleets with EV’s is a perfect opportunity.

He added that the process will allow more road time for each bus, as it takes the human element out of the loop, and robots perform repetitive tasks better. The system connects cables to the vehicle without needing any human intervention, resulting in huge time savings, Bouman explained. ROCSYS is also studying the market for e-buses, farm tractors, and self-driving vehicles, all of which need charging infrastructure.

Also, overnight charging is easier without the need for onsite staff at automated plug-in depots, Bouman added. This ensures fully charged batteries every morning and greater reliability of bus operations. He said that ROCSYS guarantees no loose cables, which improves cable life and safety. Because of this, drivers don’t need to reserve time for recharging, and they are freed of that responsibility. The Megawatt Charging System (MCS) robotic chargers will be easy to install and highly cost-effective, which is attractive to school district transportation managers, he added.

Meanwhile, Elwin Roetman, the sales director of ROCSYS, echoed many of Bouman’s observations. Roetman explained that the company’s CCS1 Connector is compatible with any type of charger, offering a standardized connection with automated charging. He said this is very important for end-users who want to eliminate on-site technicians and free up drivers to complete their routes.

An integrated camera is used to detect the position of the inlet and navigate toward it, Roetman noted. He added that a soft robotics system can charge a bus while passengers are on board, minimizing downtime. Each depot is different than the others, offering a combination of positions for buses and robots – some with one lane, some with two so that buses can be charged continuously.

With robots, there is no danger of drivers tripping on loose or disconnected cables, and drivers don’t need to perform any of the operations, Roetman continued, adding that using robots is much safer and more efficient than traditional systems, and drivers welcome these changes.

In addition, once the entire fleet is fully charged, the school district doesn’t need to keep a spare bus in operation, saving time and costs, Roetman said. He explained that ROCSYS’s overall goals are reliability, efficiency, consumer confidence, and driver satisfaction. He added that the estimated lifetime of a ROCSYS MCS under development is 10 years, matching its service contract. Of course, this might change as newer components are introduced.

Management Systems Provide Feedback

Luke James, the head of mobility and project director at Reuters Impact, an agenda-setting leadership forum and a division of multimedia news agency Reuters, noted that the landscape, or as he called it topography, is a key issue in determining how to integrate the new automated charging systems. A route analysis provides the breakdown of kilowatt-hours for a route or portion of a route, he explained.

For example, in operations in the foothills of Los Angeles, school districts are learning how much power is needed for uphill and downhill drives, which indicates the amount of energy required and compares those numbers with other routes in the district, hilly, flat, mixed, etc. James said this is called “Real World Range Prediction,” which looks at historical data on how existing vehicles have performed under different conditions such as weather, busload and velocity. The bottom line, he said, is that data collection and management are vital to success in the new era of automated, robotic self-charging, all-electric school buses.

Trishan Peruma, the director of ViriCiti, an EV software management company, added in the session that the main challenge in these efforts is to develop a comprehensive charge management solution leading to the adoption of electric charging globally. The company currently works in 21 countries, with over 200 operators and a wide range of bus manufacturers. He explained that this is a project of epic proportions, as the company’s goal is to standardize and optimize the new and ever-advancing technology. Government agencies, end-users and software partners are taking a holistic approach, he added.

Data is collected at two main points in the system: vehicles and charging infrastructure on mixed routes in order to prioritize the charge and load required for each, Peruma said. Because this is highly technical, he said bus and battery manufacturers want to take the responsibility off the shoulders of school districts and similar organizations, he noted.

“The future is low or zero emissions,” Peruma continued. “We need to ensure data transparency around what we do with the data. And we need to offer actionable insights to our customers. This is a key component of the overall transition from old diesel and gasoline vehicles to new EV’s.”

He reviewed the many challenges of designing all-electric system maintenance and strategies for recharging vehicles. “Going forward, new tools will need to be developed for calculating power usage per route, estimating total charge needs, and optimizing the system for maximum performance,” he concluded.

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Meanwhile, Steven Meersman, the founder and director of Zenobe, an energy equipment and solutions provider in London, England noted that “The solution of how to transition from legacy, gasoline-and-diesel powered buses won’t work if we don’t consider day one,” he said. “There are so many questions facing an end-user. Does ownership pose a risk? What if the system fails? Should we buy or lease batteries? How will the grid be constructed? And what is the expected life span of the infrastructure? How long can we use it? Maintenance costs?”

He added that with all the questions transportation leaders have, EV’s can seem overwhelming to a prospective user. He advised school districts to not continue using its legacy fleet but instead to find others for the answers they seek.

“How do we as providers lower the total cost of ownership? Through constant research, data collection and smart development,” he said. “We must be smart about every aspect of this enormous project. We owe it to our clients.” He added that user feedback will help others know and understand how customers are experiencing the changes and how to optimize the results.

“At a typical London, England bus depot, we consider how to get the electric buses into their depots without conflicting with the still-huge numbers of diesel buses moving throughout the city,” Meersman said. “This is a very tricky operational problem. Once every route has been converted, the solution will be much easier and automated. So, it requires cooperation from everyone.”

He said Zenobe uses information from the CMS to “scale up and fully electrify” portions of London, but the process is far from complete. One persistent issue is figuring out how to smooth out power consumption and avoid peaks and dips. Zenobe can apply this knowledge and experience to help school districts in the U.S. and worldwide, taking into account the different overseas power grids and usage regulations, he explained.

“Our major goal at Zenobe,” Meersman said, “is to provide ecologically and financially sustainable service to our customers, and to continually seek and develop improvements.”

One idea coming out of the session was to install self-charging batteries on board each bus, as it would eliminate the need for charging stations and infrastructure altogether. In that scenario school buses, public transit buses and all vehicles on the road would continually recharge, with huge savings in time, miles traveled and more efficient route scheduling.

The electrification of school buses is a fluid, ever-changing scenario, with revolutionary developments popping up every day. As Bouman at ROCSYS said, “It’s a moving target – a project that will never be complete.”

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