Turkey has a decades long history of producing automobiles for both domestic and global markets. Specifically, Turkey has established itself as a key builder of commercial vehicles, with the majority of those flowing through export channels to Europe, thanks to favorable customs agreements established in 1995.
Located an hour outside of Istanbul in Bursa, Karsan has been building passenger vehicles and buses since it was founded in 1966. Their core business is the design and manufacturing of a full range of buses. Karsan also does intermittent contract manufacturing of passenger vehicles in a flexible factory arrangement that lets its business surge and contract as the business shifts over time.
This flexible manufacturing mindset permeates the company and has created a team that’s both agile and adaptive. We visited its headquarters and production facility and from the moment we began talking with the Karsan leadership team, it was clear that it was much more than just a legacy combustion vehicle manufacturer. Having made a name for themselves in the industry with their diesel-powered rigs, Karsan made the decision to embrace electrification early on and today, boasts a full line of fully electric bus offerings.
The Fully Electric Future, Today
It was this push into electrification that led Karsan to enter into the 2015 competition to design and build the next generation United States Postal Service vehicle. The multi year competition resulted in their proposal being selected as one of the final three vehicles being considered. Their vehicle was not ultimately chosen, but the process required a deep dive into electric vehicles and established solid business relationships in the US and with the US government.
In parallel, Karsan started developing an electric version of its smallest bus, the Jest. Karsan partnered with BMW to supply the batteries and motors to build the e-Jest and it was officially launched in Munich in 2018. The Karsan e-Jest is a 5.8 meter, 25 passenger low floor shuttle bus designed to meet the needs of the Turkish market, where these small buses are common sights on city streets. In Turkey, it is popular for employers to pick employees up in this type of vehicle and they are also often utilized to bring children to school.
Riding in the e-Jest around the Karsan campus, it delivers on the promise and made me wish we had more electric transit vehicles in the United States. The ride was silent and smooth as we glided around the campus, taking in both at the massive manufacturing facility and the vehicle itself. Reading about vehicles online is nice, but experiencing the silent comfort of a shuttle bus when so many others in the world in are powered by petrol or diesel is a wonderful thing.
Partnering with BMW on the electric powertrain of the vehicle gave Karsan a solid foundation for its electric vehicle lineup and a reliable partner in the push towards the future. With Europe as one of the key export markets for Karsan and the rest of the Turkish automotive industry, offering a zero emission option was increasingly important and Karsan eagerly moved into the space.
Karsan followed up on the e-Jest with a fully electric version of the popular 8 meter, 52 passenger ATAK just one year later. It was the first of Karsan’s line of full-sized transit buses to be offered in a fully electric configuration. Since its introduction, Karsan has also added fully electric versions of the rest of its buses to its catalog. To date, 300 fully electric buses have been sold and sales have hit an inflection point this year, with 280 new orders coming in over the first three months alone.
For CEO Okan Bas, the sharp uptick in interest in fully electric buses has been years in the making. “This is a paradigm shift in the automotive world,” he said. “Everybody knows and everybody sees what’s happening in the automotive world.” Under his leadership, Karsan has put on its agile boots and truly taken on the challenge of electrifying transportation head on. “We are trying to be the pioneer in this hard change, going electric,” Bas said.
It was his clear vision for the future of Karsan that prepared the business for the increase in demand today and he plans to position Karsan as the leader not only in electric buses for Europe, but in autonomous, electric vehicles for the entire world. “Today, we are the only brand in Europe, with the whole range [of electric buses] from 6M on up,” he said. “We are the only brand who can serve the whole range with electric today.”
Shortly after building its first electric e-ATAK full-sized transit bus, Karsan brought on California-based Adastec and BMWi as partners to build a fully autonomous transit bus. Transit buses typically run static routes, from the depot along a predetermined set of stops and back, making them perhaps the ideal use case for a fully electric, autonomous vehicle. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to drastically improve the safety of vehicles while drastically lowering the cost of operation.
Karsan’s Autonomous e-ATAK is a fully electric, level 4 autonomous vehicle, capable of navigating on city streets as a full-sized vehicle, at full speed. The company made history as Europe’s first self driving bus with passengers when the first customer vehicle went into operation earlier this year in Stavanger, Norway. If early pilots of the technology are successful — and all signs point to that being the case — vehicles like the autonomous e-ATAK could unlock a future of low cost, zero emission transit with far fewer accidents. That is a potential game changer for cities in Europe and around the world.
I was shocked to learn that Karsan’s Adastec-powered autonomous vehicles only require about 1 month of localization, including mapping of the route, learning local signs, language, etc before being put into service. It’s an extremely rapid process for a technology that can drastically reduce the cost of operations for transit authorities. Using pre-mapped roads, Lidar, and cameras may seem strange when coming from the world of passenger vehicles, but because they run on fixed routes, this is an ideal implementation for transit vehicles.
Efforts are ramping up here in the United States as well, with partnerships with Michigan State University starting to pay dividends. “We have the first bus in the USA running and having permission to run on public roads without a driver,” Bas said. Karsan plans to offer fully autonomous versions of all buses in the coming years.
When we rolled up to Karsan’s headquarters and factory in Bursa, Turkey, I was expecting to see a traditional automotive manufacturing facility but what we saw was completely different. Karsan has built up a stable of fully electric offerings for all of the buses in its lineup that stand on the shoulders of six decades of experience in automotive manufacturing, with a proven track record of reliability.
These relatively new electric bus offerings already offer a compelling total cost of ownership that is lower than their combustion-powered counterparts over a 5 year horizon. That cost equation is only going to improve over time as the cost of batteries continues to fall. Karsan has successfully pulled off a monumental pivot from decades of petrol and diesel vehicles to build out a full complement of battery electric buses. By all accounts, the future is bright for Karsan and for the zero emission future they are ushering in for Turkey and beyond.
The future it seems, is electric. Thanks to companies like Karsan, that future is here, now.
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