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Driving Change

Silicon Valley commuters should return to work in electric buses

Electric buses aren't just cleaner; they are quieter to operate, so companies that pick up employees in urban neighborhoods benefit from less air and noise pollution.

MCI's J4500 Charge Hero electric commuter bus

Last year, I published a feature about why it was time for Silicon Valley to embrace the electric commuter bus. At the beginning of 2020, the San Francisco Bay Area uniquely had over 1,000 private buses — the vast majority using diesel fuel — moving employees to the corporate campuses of companies including Google and Facebook. (In comparison, the Bay Area has about 3,000 public transit buses.) 

What I didn't envision was the pandemic. 2020 saw employee commutes and office work freeze, and commuter bus routes dropped to limited schedules only for essential workers.  

A year later — with vaccines in arms — companies and their employees are beginning to return to office work. Some — such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Uber — are fast-tracking in-office schedules and even rejecting industry visions of full-time remote work.

As Silicon Valley's workers return to offices, I am eager to see companies double down on their plans to electrify and decarbonize all those commuter buses. And the companies making and selling those new e-commuter buses, appear ready and waiting for 'em.

A company called Motor Coach Industries (MCI), a division of Canadian bus maker New Flyer, unveiled Tuesday the latest version of its J4500e CHARGE electric bus. MCI has been piloting the bus with some Bay Area customers including German bus operator FlixBus, which has been using MCI's electric bus for some runs between Sacramento and San Francisco.

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These luxury commuter buses are different from standard barebones transit buses in a variety of ways. They tend to have longer routes — so need bigger batteries — and they also have many more high-end features, such as power outlets at every seat, WiFi access, bathroom and premium seats, carpeting, and heating and cooling. 

Some Silicon Valley employers have been eagerly waiting for an electric version of a popular commuter bus from Belgian bus maker Van Hool; its coaches make up a good portion of fleets for tech companies including Google and Facebook. The electric version is distributed in North America through ABC Companies and uses powertrain technology from Proterra.

Late last year, Van Hool started shipping its first CX45E electric commuter buses to its first U.S. customers; it will ship 10 more of those models in the U.S. during the first half of 2021. That number should only grow. There are 11,000 diesel-powered Van Hool buses moving folks around America.

At some point, all of the Valley's commuter buses should be running on either batteries or low carbon fuel options such as renewable diesel. Corporate fleets with commuter buses can replace diesel now with renewable diesel (maybe even using waste from their cafeterias) while they're preparing for a broader electrification plan.

Why should they do this? Many companies have aggressive climate commitments, and hitting those numbers means decarbonizing their transportation. Companies also will find that electric and low-carbon commuting options are a way to attract and maintain talent. 

In addition, at some point down the road, driving electric buses can save companies money on fueling and maintenance costs. Electric buses aren't just cleaner, they are quieter to operate, so companies that pick up employees in urban neighborhoods benefit from less air and noise pollution, making their communities happier. 

Finally, there's been a good deal of angst and controversy from community members around the privatization of these commuter buses. Google and Apple buses have been the subject of protests in the past. Making these buses cleaner and quieter will help the tech companies be better members of their community. 

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