Battery Electric Buses Come of Age

John-Trotti-Blog

Geoffrey Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm, speaks to the moment when disruptive technologies make the leap from early adopter to early majority customers, signaling the maturity of a technology and its acceptance as a mainstream solution. This, I think, is where we stand today in the public transit arena with the rising rate of adoption of battery electric buses as signaled by King County Metro (WA)’s decision to purchase 120 vehicles by 2020, in which the County’s Executive, Dow Constantine, explains, “We are convinced that this technology has crossed the threshold from promising to practical.”

King County's Battery-Electric Bus by Proterra.

King County’s Battery-Electric Bus by Proterra

Equally interesting, was the recent decision of the private real estate investment company that owns Chicago’s Prudential Plaza and Aon Center, to transition its tenant shuttle service—with 82 daily routes between Prudential Plaza and Aon Center in the East Loop, and the major Metra railway terminals at Ogilvie Transportation Center, Union Station, and LaSalle Street Station—from diesel to battery electric buses. The shuttles will provide approximately 35,000 rides monthly to individuals who work in the two buildings.

While these, along with the bulk of other battery-electric transit systems rely on subsidies to make such transitions economically feasible, the gap between the power systems is shrinking rapidly, heralding a day when electrics will be able to stand on their tires.

With this as backdrop, allow me to tell a story of a battery electric transit program in which I participated as a board member more than a quarter century ago.

The Fleet Bus

The Fleet Bus

In 1990, Gary Gleason, General Manager of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District (SBMTD), proposed to his Board of Directors the idea of developing a fleet of battery-powered electric shuttles to service the downtown and waterfront areas of the city…but not before Ferenc Pavlic—leader of Santa Barbara-based General Motors Defense Research Laboratories’ Lunar Rover program had agreed to do the design work. At the same time, Gleason worked out a power agreement with Southern California Edison to provide charging stations and a low rate for overnight recharging, all with no assurance that the project would ever get off the ground.

Santa Barbara MTD  downtown shoreline shuttle

Santa Barbara MTD downtown shoreline shuttle

It did, and by 1992, seven 22-passenger battery-electric Moon Buggy shuttles were ferrying residents and vacationers from downtown Santa Barbara and the Santa Fe train station, past the harbor and beachfront strand, to nearby Montecito with its upscale shopping area.

In 1995, SBMTD was approached by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) for assistance in fielding its own fleet of electric shuttles, and in 1996 both SBMTD and CARTA provided battery electric shuttles for moving athletes to different venues at the Atlanta Olympics.

Over the years, SBMTD, through its Electric Transit Institute, developed increasingly efficient motor controllers, tested several different batteries, and even hosted the incorporation of a fuel cell (H Power’s reformer system) that left room for the driver station and a severely limited passenger section. If memory serves me right, this bus went to SMUD for further study.

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Amazingly, many of the original shuttles are still in service after nearly 25 years of daily operation, the result of Ferenc Pavlic’s wonderful design and the simplicity of maintaining the batteries and motors. No longer a cute little PR experiment, 14 battery electric shuttles are a mainstay in Santa Barbara’s downtown waterfront transit route structure, enduring as many as 11 hours of operation on their lead-acid batteries, and this past fall the decision was made to begin to replace the legacy fleet with modern buses.

While the dream of a crosstown feeder network with electric shuttles operating in conjunction with their hybrid electric trunk line cousins is still a dream, SBMTD’s 1990 experiment has paid off handsomely to date, and seems destined to do well into the future. 

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