Most of the press attention on electric vehicles focuses on the lack of growth in electric passenger car sales and the fickle nature of consumers’ buying habits. However, much less has been devoted to an area where electric power seems destined to take off: city buses. These vehicles, which travel on fixed routes, hour after hour and day after day, using predictable duty cycles, present an ideal opportunity for electrification. A company which – uniquely – is a battery maker turned automotive giant is leading the charge: the Warren Buffet-invested Chinese corporation, BYD.
Here, Isbrand Ho, Managing Director of BYD Europe, discusses his views on why catching the ebus is soon going to become commonplace in the world’s leading cities.
Where is BYD to date in the rollout of its electric bus programme?
The history of BYD’s ebus programme can be traced back to BYD’s entry into the vehicle making business in 2003. Since then, we have produced 2.5 million vehicles. BYD is the world’s largest producer of rechargeable batteries. Very early on, our founder, Chuanfu Wang, wanted to use his expertise in battery making to bring about a revolution in the auto business.
He conceived BYD’s ‘green city solution’, a programme which aims to transition public transportation from petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles to fully electric powered ones. So BYD set out to design a vehicle for the private hire and taxi market, the BYD e6, which is now entering service in London and other major cities. We also developed the ebus, a family of fully electric buses, including a variety of lengths, a double decker and an articulated version.
BYD swiftly acquired a well experienced Chinese bus plant in Changsha and converted it from making diesel buses to making 100% electric ones. We now have several hundred ebuses in service in China which have proven the strength of our concept – a fleet of 220 in the southern city of Shenzhen alone has covered more than 22 million kilometres.
The BYD e6 is entering service in Britain, but what is being done to bring the buses to the rest of Europe?
We have embarked on a major fleet evaluation programme which so far has reached over 25 major cities, including Paris, Bremen, Bonn, Madrid, Barcelona, Salzburg, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Brussels and Budapest. Our buses are now also in service in London, 35 have been ordered by Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, and further major fleet orders are in the pipeline.
How does the company recover the high cost of shipping buses from China to Europe?
It is costly, which is why we are examining the creation of bus assembly facilities closer to the markets we intend to serve. We have already opened a plant in California and are on record as saying we plan to open two in Europe, one of which we expect to be in the UK. The critical point will be when we secure orders for around 100 buses, and we are now virtually there.
Are you planning any further announcements, or adding any additional cities to your ebus testing?
We will certainly be announcing further orders very shortly, and it is our intention to continue our trials programme. This year we will be making available a large fleet of demonstration vehicles in Europe so that more potential customers can try our products and understand the many environmental and economic benefits which can accrue from using them.
In North America, an intensive trial programme in New York ended recently with the BYD being rated as ‘performed excellent’ by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and further fleets have been ordered in California. Trials have also taken place in South America and other parts of Asia beyond China.
Are you bidding against other companies in these countries and cities, or are you alone in offering ebuses?
No, of course not. We face some of the best engineering brains in the world from some of the world’s most experienced bus makers, and all are squaring up to the challenges of reducing emissions in city public transport vehicles. But many have got themselves mired in complex and expensive hybrid technologies. I liken them to Kodak – a great company which nevertheless found itself still making film cameras when the world had gone digital. We are wondering when some of these companies are going to have a ‘Kodak moment’ and realise that the future is not hybrid but pure electric.
A big problem with EVs is up-front cost: has it been a barrier to convincing municipalities to adopt ebuses?
Of course it’s a significant consideration, but when you take account of the many governmental incentive programmes which are in place, and the total life cost of our low maintenance ebuses together with their dramatically reduced cost of operation – thanks to electricity being cheaper than diesel – then these can easily be overcome.
With that in mind, have your trials demonstrated running cost benefits to convince municipalities of the viability of ebuses?
Yes they have. In a recent analysis, a major fleet operator compared the purchase price, maintenance cost per kilometre and the cost difference between electric and diesel power including infrastructure costs. This analysis showed that the life cycle cost of the BYD ebus was lower than the latest technology Euro VI diesel bus offered by a competitor. And this was despite the fact that in that city only ‘green energy’ is used, which typically costs three times more than electricity produced from other sources. That means that operators not using green electricity could enjoy even greater operational cost savings compared to diesel. I’m pleased to say that we have secured a sizeable fleet order from that operator which will be announced shortly.
Where are ebuses best suited, both in terms of applications and geography?
There are really no limits. In Europe, our trials programme so far has spanned Tel Aviv in summer and Copenhagen in winter. Obviously hilly environments can be challenging, but what goes up has to come down and our ebus recovers electrical energy during braking and decelerating. In fact, our next generation, heavy duty electric bus is designed for cities with extreme hilly environments.
Charging the vehicle presents obvious challenges. What is BYD’s preferred method of recharging?
We have developed our own range of chargers, including – where electricity supply permits – fast chargers which can recharge the bus from fully exhausted to fully charged in only four or five hours. We think this is an optimal solution. In New York, a very tough operating environment, our ebus completed a 24 hour duty cycle without recharge, and in London, the two buses in service now charge overnight at off-peak electricity prices for only just over US$30 per bus.
We are aware of other charging methods, for instance so-called wireless or inductive charging. However, that is necessary on buses which have considerably less energy storage than provided by our BYD Fe lithium-ion iron-phosphate batteries, and which cannot complete a duty cycle on a single charge. Besides, we think that is technically complex and not without some potential issues concerning passenger safety, not to mention the additional infrastructure cost and weight increment to the bus.
Besides operating costs and emissions, perhaps the most important part of a bus business is the passenger. Have you had any feedback from passengers riding your ebuses?
Almost all of the comments we hear are positive and usually revolve around the quietness and the jerk-free ride, since our ebus does not have a conventional gearbox. Of course, the environmentally aware passengers are also full of praise for the reduced emissions in their city streets.