After a somewhat slow start, the US electric bus market is catching fire, judging by the news coming from US manufacturer Proterra. The company recently announced plans for a new West Coast factory to complement its first plant in South Carolina, and just today it opened its new California headquarters in Silicon Valley while introducing a new addition to its production line.
Proterra CEO and President Ryan Popple graciously lent CleanTechnica some time to talk about the company’s electric bus strategy over the phone last week, so along with giving you the scoop on the new HQ, we’re going to provide some insider-y perspective on the US electric bus market.
New Headquarters For Electric Bus Innovation
The location of the new HQ is an indication that Proterra’s current iteration of electric bus technology is just the beginning of a rapid shift out of diesel — “clean diesel” or “no clean diesel,” as the case may be.
Here’s what Popple had to say about the electric bus market in the wake of the VW “clean diesel” emissions cheating scandal:
The VW scandal changes everything. The brand of “clean diesel” is dead. It wasn’t real, they faked the test result.
It’s oxymoronic. There is no level of diesel pollution you’d want to be exposed to. The end point should be moving vehicles without lighting fuel on fire.
When we got to the point where Paris had air quality as bad as China, you know something is going to change.
According to Proterra’s press materials, the new California headquarters is designed to leverage relationships with other transportation innovators in the highly receptive urban markets of California as well as Washington and Oregon:
By expanding its footprint in Silicon Valley, Proterra aims to be at the apex of transit innovation. The 34,440 square foot Burlingame headquarters will include a mix of management and support teams from the Advanced Engineering, Finance, Sales, Marketing, and HR departments with 40 employees initially.
Popple expanded on that angle:
We are definitely going to continue on an evolutionary path. Most of our team has a background with other technology companies. It’s a competitive, relentless environment and we don’t want to be another Blackberry.
Proterra’s tech strategy includes charging stations as well as the electric bus itself. The company’s core market consists of transit agencies, and transit agency fleets include a wide variety of vehicles in addition to buses. As vehicle technology transitions to electricity, Proterra foresees an advantage for vehicles that don’t require their own special charging station.
Electric Buses — Small Is Good
Firm and option contract orders for Proterra’s electric buses now stand at about 440, and last Friday the company announced that it has been included in a statewide multi-vendor contract in Washington, enabling transit agencies and other buyers to purchase the buses without going through a lengthy acquisition process.
That activity encompasses Proterra’s 40-foot Catalyst electric bus, and the other big news today concerns the introduction of a new 35-foot version to suit local conditions in the Bay Area and elsewhere:
Closely tracking the broader transportation trend towards advanced safety systems, the new 35-foot Catalyst electric bus provides customers with nimble maneuvering and enhanced automated features, including collision avoidance and traction control in a smaller model for dense urban areas, building on the performance of the 40-foot Catalyst vehicle.
College campuses and hilly, windy routes are good candidates for the 35-foot model, according to Popple.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit is already lined up to get the first seven 35-foot Catalysts to roll off the assembly line.
Aside from offering the new 35-foot option, Proterra’s “tech centered” approach is designed to enable transit agencies to tailor the battery back and charging systems to their individual routes, terrain and driving conditions.
So Much For Diesel, What About Compressed Natural Gas?
The local air quality case for ditching diesel in favor of electric buses is cut and dried, and Proterra makes a solid case for the bottom line benefits, too.
The company is also taking on the market for compressed natural gas (CNG) in urban transportation. Last summer, CleanTechnica checked in on Proterra when the company put its electric bus through its paces at a federal test facility in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Here’s a snippet from Proterra’s press release:
While conventional diesel buses average 3.86 MPG, the Proterra Catalyst achieved the best efficiency rating ever for a 40’ transit bus at 22 MPGe. Nearly six times more efficient than a diesel or CNG bus…
Electric Buses Practically Sell Themselves
As for the aforementioned new manufacturing facility in California, that will be up and running next year. Aside from simply cranking out more prodcut, Popple explained that the factory will make it more convenient for transit planners in the western states — and from the Pacific rim nations — to tour the facility and get an up-close look at the technology.
While Popple emphasized that Proterra is very careful about its expansion plans, the new factory is expected to reach capacity in short order (last time we checked, the South Carolina plant already had a backlog).
As Popple describes it, the US electric bus market is “teetering on the brink” of a very large breakthrough. Before placing an order, transit agencies need to know “when, where and how” the vehicles will actually be built. According to Popple, the tipping point is here. The company is already generated significant interest within its first five years of marketing, half the time that is typical of new products:
You can feel that it’s s a different market today. In general it takes 10 to 12 years for an idea to get to the first wave of an industrial market…We deployed our first products in 2010. That was the first time that customers could touch it, feel it, verify the way it works. We are not the first, but we are benefiting from awareness of the [electric vehicle] category.
With a range of more than 200 miles for the Catalyst, Proterra has broken down the “psychological barrier” that has prevented transit planners from seriously considering a full switchover to electric technology.
Over and above environmental considerations, “core economics” are driving Proterra’s sales. In addition to lowering the price of its chargers, Popple explained that technological adjustments have enabled Proterra to drop the price of the Catalyst to about $500,000, down precipitously from the $1 million price tag on its initial models. As an example, Popple cites a commercial customer that ran the numbers and came up with a $400,000 life-of-operation savings for the Catalyst compared to the diesel alternative.
Proterra’s business model also enables customers to lease the battery pack, further adding to savings and potentially enabling customers to get their hands on new battery technology without having to buy a whole new vehicle.
Image via Proterra.