Along with contributing to the brown smog above many large cities, the transportation sector is responsible for nearly one-quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to data from the United Nations.
For city planners and transit agencies, delivering passenger transport options for ever-changing urban communities and minimizing tailpipe emissions means piecing together a multi-layered, complex puzzle of variables including infrastructure needs, regulatory compliance and trend forecasts.
What’s the most logical route? In the U.S., battery-electric buses are projected to remain the lowest-carbon option in every part of the country, even on current electricity grids. However, just 0.5 percent of the total U.S. public transit bus market consisted of electric buses at the end of 2017 — a nascent market when compared to deployment rates of 12-14 percent in Europe and Asia.
While e-buses are still priced at a premium compared with their diesel-powered counterparts, data shows electric buses can have a lower total cost of ownership and are competitive with diesel buses when comparing lifetime costs over 12 years, offering better efficiency and lower maintenance costs due to simplified drivetrains.
What’s more, growth and innovation in the emerging heavy-duty electric bus sector has been significant over the past few years, although those advances are sometimes overshadowed by the limelight given to light-duty passenger vehicle providers such as Tesla.
So, who are the top e-bus leaders? Given that the 29-47 feet segment within the electric bus market is projected to be the largest driver over the next six years in terms of purchase volume, the focus of this piece will center on leading e-bus manufacturers that offer buses in this class.
In alphabetical order, here are the e-bus innovators racing to deliver a portion of the 1.2 million e-buses expected to be on the road globally by 2025. There’s a lot of ground to cover in those four years: In 2017 there were a total of just 386,000 e-buses on the road globally.
In 2015, AB Volvo, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, was the first original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the heavy-duty bus segment to completely halt production of diesel buses for its customers in the European market, a considerable shift given it’s the world's largest diesel bus manufacturer.
The Volvo 7900 Electric model touts a full rapid charge time of up to six minutes, battery storage configuration options, new pedestrian and cyclist-detection systems and a single charge range of 124 miles, give or take.
In late 2020, the company received what was at the time the largest single order for electric buses in Europe, a contract to deliver 157 electric articulated (think bendy) 7900 electric buses to its hometown of Gothenburg. AB Volvo boasts that the energy consumption for each bus, and others like it, is 80 percent lower than that of traditional 150-passenger diesel buses.
Success for AB Volvo in Europe has been largely driven by regional emissions reduction goals. For Sweden, investment in electric buses is an important step to achieve the region’s aggressive climate goals — decreasing CO2 emissions from public transport by 90 percent by 2035.
As of 2020, nearly 98 percent of the world’s deployed electric buses were in China. In fact, the Asia Pacific region is projected to continue to house the largest electric bus market in the world for years to come, largely due to Chinese-based e-bus providers such as BYD.
Over the past 10 years, BYD in Shenzeng, Guangdong, has grown into one of the largest, most established e-bus makers in the world. BYD has been the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer for the past three years, de-throning rival Chinese-based OEM Yutong, also highlighted in this article.
In the past five months, BYD has set significant sales records in key markets. It secured Europe’s largest single order of 246 buses to Dutch global public transport provider Keolis Nederland BV, and won the largest order for pure-electric buses outside of China to date — supplying 1,002 electric buses to Bogotá, Colombia. The 29.5-39-foot buses are to be assembled in Colombia, highlighting BYD’s practiced overseas "localization strategy" — forming important local economic development partnerships and jobs to drive sales.
In the U.S., BYD America operates a bus and a battery plant in Lancaster, California. In that market, it competes head to head with U.S.-based OEM Proterra, which leads in orders and deliveries in the North American market.
Leveraging regional incentives and regulatory guidelines plays a considerable role in success in the electric bus market.
For example, after 2021, BYD America no longer will qualify for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants due to updates to the National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits FTA funding from being used to purchase buses from suppliers from "nonmarket economies" such as China. As BYD America is ultimately a Chinese-owned company, this poses some significant hurdles for the company’s success in the U.S. because these grants were a valuable source of funding to get projects off the ground.
While Asia Pacific accounts for the largest total share of the e-bus market, North America is expected to be the fastest-growing. Since 2004, Burlingame, California-based Proterra has sold more than 1,000 electric buses in the U.S. and Canada, making it the largest e-bus manufacturer in North America.
Proterra’s ZX5 Electric Transit Bus models boast some of the lowest operating costs and the largest range potential of buses of its kind — a whopping 329 miles on a single charge.
Like BYD, Proterra develops its battery packs in-house; in 2019, it launched a battery leasing program to minimize upfront costs and provide attractive financing options for transit buyers.
The Biden administration’s plan to make all new American-built buses operate with zero emissions by 2030 is seen to be a huge asset to Proterra and other U.S. e-bus manufacturers, allowing for access to critical resources to electrify transportation and drive domestic sales.
In January, Proterra announced it will be publicly listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange after it completes a reverse merger with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), ArcLight Clean Transition Corp later this year. The new combined company is estimated to have a $1.6 billion valuation.
Started as a family business, VDL has grown into a notable heavy-duty electric transport provider in Europe, where one in five electric buses are VDL-made. Based in Eindhoven, Netherlands, the company has established manufacturing plants domestically and in Belgium.
VDL’s largest fleet of 102 VDL Citeas electric buses will be operational in Oslo starting in January — largely driven by the Norwegian capital’s goal for public transport to be emissions-free by 2028.
In the race to innovate, VDL announced that it will unveil its new generation of all-electric VDL Citea buses in October. While specifications and range estimates are still unavailable, the company teased the models’ entirely new electric drivetrain, floor-mounted batteries that increase passenger safety and space, use of ultra-light materials and, after conducting research on the needs of drivers, the integration of new comfort and safety features for drivers who will work in post-pandemic conditions.
Dutch transport company Hermes has preordered 32 units of the next generation Citea buses, which will be in operation in the Netherlands starting in January.
With BYD, China’s Yutong has contributed significantly to the region’s domination of heavy-duty electric vehicle sales and manufacturing. In 2016, Yutong was the largest bus manufacturer in the world by sales volume, eclipsed in recent years by BYD.
However, it’s far too soon to make a call on a Chinese e-bus winner. In November, Yutong secured one of the largest orders for battery-electric buses — inking a deal with transport solutions provider Mowasalat for 741 e-buses to be deployed by 2022 in time for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Yutong’s foreign market strategy includes a strong focus on Europe and the Middle East, with a special focus on Nordic countries — regions that have ambitious or state-subsidized transit emission reduction commitments.
In 2019, Yutong unveiled the Yutong U12, which represents its first take on integrating autonomous technology into its next-gen buses. While full autonomy is still expected to be years out from being fully deployed in the 29.5-46-foot bus segment, Yutong is showing significant investment in steps to make driverless buses a reality.
In a live demonstration last year, the company showcased its 5G-enabled mobility solutions and "smart roads" infrastructure products. The demonstration showed buses given priority at intersections, improving pass-through rates from 47 percent to 79 percent and reducing the average waiting time for buses at red lights from 17 seconds to 2 seconds.
Zero-emissions buses in 2040
As the pandemic recovery starts to take effect, transportation agencies such as Pittsburgh’s Port Authority are eager for passengers to return to public transit. While health safety still is a barrier to bus use, the battery-electric bus market is positioned to grow, driven by municipal emissions targets and tumbling battery prices.
According to Bloomberg’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020, e-buses are expected to comprise over 67 percent of the global bus fleet by 2040; however, manufacturers still have to address new supply chain challenges including semiconductor shortages and supplier access to raw battery materials such as lithium-ion.
In places such as Toronto, fleet managers are intentionally sourcing e-bus fleets from multiple OEMs with the hopes of creating real-time performance comparisons to inform future purchases — priceless data for eager municipal transit operators looking to electrify their fleets and zero out tailpipe emissions.