RENO, Nev. – The movement toward electric vehicles is in full swing in the student transportation industry as evidenced by the technology displayed by bus manufacturers and conversion companies at STN EXPO Reno Trade Show.
The event on Dec. 8 proved to be a fitting exclamation point to a comeback educational experience that stressed child safety, the value of employees entrusted with their security, compassion, and the technology that is the adhesive binding these characteristics together.
Technology from around the world was represented. A newcomer to the annual transportation showcase was China-based BYD Motors. LLC. Samuel Kang, the company’s chief product officer, said the company with manufacturing facilities located north of Los Angeles is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric commercial vehicles. Kang said BYD began looking at manufacturing school buses about 18 months ago. He explained word of mouth, exhibiting at trade shows, and visiting school districts have been the main marketing avenues the company has employed.
“We know that electric buses are the future of student transportation,” Kang said. “We already manufacture transit buses and electric trucks, so we took the essence of what we learned and know will work and put that into a school bus.”
BYD has yet to announce when school bus production begins, but it is expected in the new year.
Meanwhile, industry stalwarts were on hand to display their wares for their faithful customers who have come to expect sustained excellence.
IC Bus Vice President and General Manager Trish Reed said that while the Illinois-based manufacturer is committed to electric school buses, it is taking a thoughtful and deliberate approach to the new technology as it strives to ensure its customers have a positive experience. “When we decided to come out with electric buses, we wanted it to be a well-thought-out plan instead of a science project,” she said.
Reed explained that the Navistar brand initially ran 18 buses in British Columbia that provided good diagnostics and other information relevant to improving the product, including regenerative braking to conserve energy. She said the drivers also liked the buses.
“And school buses are perfect as far as infrastructure goes because the routes are the same and they come back to the same place every day,” she said. “School buses are a great place to begin electric adoption.”
Reed continued saying IC Bus has seen increased interest in British Columbia and throughout Southern California, the latter where about 100 electric buses are on order by various school districts. “Electric is the right thing to do, but we want to make sure we do it the right way for our customers,” Reed said.
Albert Burleigh, the executive director for EV sales at Blue Bird, said that STN EXPO Reno proved to him that customers want options, which were provided to them in abundance with seven different electric bus makes and models on display.
“Some want to move quickly into electric buses to take full advantage of the health and environmental benefits these buses provide. Others want to move more slowly into their transition to zero-emission products and will continue with other clean fuel types like propane until they are ready to make a full transition,” he observed.
He also commented that attendee questions have also moved on from cost because they are aware of the many grants that are available or soon will be. “The questions are more focused on customers trying to understand how these products will be integrated into their fleets,” Burleigh explained, adding that customers instead wanted to know specifics on vehicle range, performance, infrastructure and training for technicians and drivers. “Many are surprised to learn that EVs can meet their needs for safe and reliable student transportation with little to no compromise.”
Powertrains and Batteries
Thomas Built Buses displayed its Jouley electric bus powered by a Proterra drive train and batteries. A day earlier, Daimler Trucks North America, the parent of Thomas Bus, announced a deal to manufacture a next-generation electric school bus that will feature the Blue Horizon 14Xe integrated ePowertrain from Meritor Inc. in conjunction with Proterra’s batteries to increase charging capacity.
“For us it’s the next generation to see if we can get more efficient components through product diversity,” said Mark Childers, powertrain and technology manager for Thomas Built Buses. “We will keep the Proterra battery and charging system, but we don’t know if we’ll keep the Proterra powertrain.”
Childers added TBB is adopting a shorter wheelbase to cater to transporters of students with disabilities and special needs. The result, he said, will be a more efficient use of space for additional equipment such as wheelchair lifts.
Product efficiency was a reason given by Reed for the IC Bus measured approach to the electric bus market, which is based on consulting with customers, charging batteries, constructing the buses, conserving batteries, and connecting, which is gaining information on the bus’ performance and range. “Over time the range will get better,” Reed commented. “We want our customers to have a better experience.”
Meanwhile, Kang said the batteries used in BYD electric school buses is a key feature and the result of years of company experience in the global electric vehicle market. Kang explained that BYD uses a lithium iron phosphate battery that is more durable than the nickel magnesium and cobalt battery used in most other electric vehicles, claiming that the lithium iron phosphate battery will not spontaneously combust.
“This is the safest battery out there and it gives you about 180 miles per charge,” Kang suggested, adding the energy capacity is about 300 kw.
In all, seven vehicle manufacturers were on hand showing their electric school buses, including The Lion Electric Company that launched the first market option a decade ago, and GreenPower Motors, which up until now had solely been focused on introducing its school buses in California.
Several other first-time exhibitors also provide electric components, charging infrastructure, and consulting services.
Additionally, STN EXPO attendees learned about options for repowering existing diesel buses to run on electricity.
Alternative fuels were also represented at the trade show, namely propane.
School Transportation News reported in June that while the case for electric school buses continued to grow, propane had emerged as the clear alternative fuel of choice, especially among private contractors seeking to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment.
Stephen Whaley, director of Autogas business development for the Propane Education and Research Council, came armed with statistics, pointing out that there are 880 electric school buses on the road (electric advocates claim the number is about 1,000) yet 22,000 propane buses in operation over the past 10 years. He said more than 1,000 school districts have propane buses and pointed out that Kayne Smith, STN’s reigning Transportation Director of the Year from Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, had replaced 336 diesel buses with propane buses, which have a 400-mile range.
Whaley said that besides the fact that electric-powered buses become less efficient the larger the bus is, they can be cost-prohibitive. He compared the $6,000 estimated additional cost of a propane bus over a conventional diesel bus to the estimated $250,000 added cost of its electric counterpart.
“We are being blinded by the enormous amount of money being thrown at electric vehicles,” Whaley said. “$2.5 billion gets you 7,000 EV buses, and we need to replace 480,000 diesel buses.”
Whaley was referring to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) signed by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15 that splits $5 billion between electric and low-emissions school buses over five years. According to IIJA, $2.5 billion is provided for zero-emissions or electric school buses, and $2.5 billion for low-emission buses that include CNG, propane and biofuels under a new Clean School Bus Program administrated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The money will be awarded in $1 billion increments ($500 million each for zero emissions and low emissions) over the next five years.
Whaley said the problem with mandating one particular energy source is that it stifles the competitive market’s attempts to develop creative ways to make adoption happen. He also questioned whether electric vehicles should be considered zero emissions when energy sources such as solar, geothermal and coal are used to generate electricity and store it in batteries.
“We should set an emission standard and let every energy source work toward that standard,” Whaley said. “The one thing we can agree on is diesel buses [harm] our kids and they have to be replaced if it takes every EV, propane and CNG to get it done.”
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Blue Bird’s Burleigh, meanwhile, pointed to the total cost of ownership as the deciding factor many school districts and bus companies are citing as the main reason they are buying propane school buses.
“They also enjoy the performance and reliability offered with a propane-powered bus which are still major factors when deciding on the right product for their fleets,” he said.