The Great Electric Bus Takeover Has Begun (CleanTechnica Exclusive Interview)

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

The US electric bus company Proterra has been making a series of rapid-fire moves into the EV transit marketplace, and it looks like you can file the latest development under Y for “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The company has just introduced a new, improved version of its Catalyst XR EV battery that will enable transit fleet managers to place electric buses on more routes — and save more money, to boot.

The bottom-line benefit of electric transit has already convinced Philadelphia’s SEPTA managers, among others, to take the electric bus plunge. With an average turnover of about 12 years, the potential is there for the entire US bus transit fleet to ditch diesel and compressed natural gas in favor of electricity.

Proterra electric bus EV

Big Fuss Over An Electric Bus

Proterra has long been on the CleanTechnica radar, and that of our sister EV-centric site, for its purpose-build approach to designing electric buses.

While the upfront costs may be more, the company’s focus on the actual lifetime cost of ownership presents a compelling case for switching to electricity.

Fuel costs alone add up because of the amount of mileage that transit buses put in. Proterra estimates a fuel savings of $250,000 to $365,000 compared to hybrid, CNG, and diesel buses.

Access to renewable energy sweetens the pot even more by insulating transit systems against fuel price shocks, and the relatively simple design of Proterra’s bus can save tens of thousands in lifetime maintenance costs — an important consideration when you’re dealing with vehicles that are on the road all day, every day.

As for the environmental benefits, last fall we caught up with Proterra CEO and President Ryan Popple, who described why the VW “clean diesel” scandal was the death knell for diesel buses:

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.

Electric buses provide a twofer because they improve general public health while also creating  a more attractive environment for alternative transportation, namely walking and bicycling, and for social interaction in public spaces like plazas, pocket parks, and outdoor dining areas.


Better Battery = More Routes

Last week, CleanTechnica had the opportunity to speak with Matt Horton, Proterra’s senior VP of sales and marketing, and he made it clear that Proterra is poised to expand its business by leaps and bounds.

According to Horton, electric buses in general already have an advantage over their diesel, CNG, and hybrid counterparts because batteries “really shine” when it comes to handling the start-stop-idle patterns of urban bus routes.

Proterra expects that its newly upgraded Catalyst XR battery will propel it even farther along. As with its bus design, Proterra took a bottom-up, from-scratch approach to the improved design, as Horton describes:

We do things a bit differently … we have been hiring battery engineers from the leading electric vehicle companies, for a complete redesign to work in Proterra buses in heavy duty transit.

The new battery has the same weight and footprint as the original, but packs a 28% increase in capacity. That provides a rated range of 194 miles, which will enable Proterra buses to be placed on longer routes with “high confidence.”

The improved battery means the Proterra buses can also be used on more routes in regions where the necessities of climate control interfere with battery range.

That’s where another new Proterra development comes into play. The battery’s rated range of up to 194 miles will vary depending on actual driving conditions, so the company has just introduced a proprietary “EV Simulator” that enables fleet managers to identify routes where they can place a Proterra bus with the improved battery, and to calculate their potential savings.

… Designed to visualize mass transit networks and to assess the cost savings, performance improvements and environmental benefits of battery-electric transport, the Proterra EV Simulator generates a side-by-side comparison of Proterra’s transit solutions with diesel, CNG, and hybrid technologies on specified transit routes within a chosen public transit system.

As Horton explained, until the EV Simulator came along, Proterra would send its analysts on actual routes with a GPS tracker to chart the variables — an effective but cumbersome and time-consuming method for calculating potential savings.

According to Horton, the EV simulator takes it to “a whole new level.” The new system leverages map applications from Google, enhanced by the more than 2 million miles that Proterra buses have already logged in actual driving conditions. Passenger load, layover times, and vehicle charge times are also among the variables that factor in.

As for the idea that the entire US bus transit fleet could transition to electricity within a dozen years or so, Horton had this to say:

It’s probable that most if not all new sales will be battery electric vehicles. The economics are already better today and costs will continue to fall over time.

I honestly struggle to understand what transit manager would buy a fossil fuel bus.

Proterra is focused like a laser on transit systems for now, because that’s where the company sees the greatest potential for rolling an entire transportation sector over to electricity. Campus shuttles and similar fleets are also ripe for the picking.

Why stop there? Success in the transit fleet market could accelerate change in other diesel-heavy sectors, including tour buses, delivery vans, food carts, and ice cream trucks.

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Image (cropped) via Proterra.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica TV Video

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3238 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey