Sunday, 10 November 2013

ELECTRIC - The Future?

To the majority of bus users, diesel power is the accepted norm but there has been a move over the past few years towards electrical power in the shape of hybrids. With the support of Green Bus Funding, hybrids have entered service, firstly in London and then in many major UK cities. Hybrids still require power from diesel engines, with economy improvements of up to 30% are claimed, a useful saving, but one that is required to balance the considerable premium in initial purchase price of the vehicle. 
Battery powered vehicles that are charged before leaving the depot have been tried but until recently have not found favour due to their comparatively short range. The thinking has been 'battery technology needs to catch up' and that is where we have been for the past few years. However, things have moved on and vehicles with increased range are now available and some clever thinking about how batteries can be topped up en route have come to the fore. TfL have agreed to trial battery powered buses and BYD, a Chinese company are in the process of supplying vehicles for use on London's streets. 

 BYD electric buses will be coming to the streets of London soon.
 Interior of BYD is quite basic and forward vision is restricted due to the component 'cupboards'

 Under bonnet view of the BYD electric vehicle

 At the recent Busworld exhibition in Kortijk in Belgium, manufacturers from all over the world showed an interesting range of electric vehicles that were much more advanced than what were being shown at the last exhibition two years ago. 
One clever idea is to fit the battery powered vehicles with a pantograph arm that can raise when the vehicle is stationary at a bus stop and take a top up charge that will considerably add to the range. Typically a one minute charge can add another 10 to 15 km to the range, so it's feasible that the battery powered bus has now come of age. As with hybrids there is a massive premium in initial cost of up to 100% but the savings in not using any diesel whatsoever would soon be recouped and this combined with zero emissions on the streets is the reason these new generation vehicles are creating so much interest. 

 Solaris showed their electrically powered 12m bus which demonstrated how a pantograph could raise at bus stops and termini to give a top up charge to the batteries.

  Chinese companies seem to be proactive in leading the race for electrically powered vehicles but are keen to work with European companies and interesting partnerships are emerging as a result. Ebusco is one such company who showed their 12m electrically powered bus that has mechanical and electrical systems from China combined with bodywork supplied and designed in mainland Europe.

 Ebusco interior

It has a claimed range of 250km in city driving with a maximum of 290km possible. This combined with a fast charging time of 1.5 hours to give an 80% charge would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, a full charge will take three hours. To take away the worry about battery life customers are being offered a battery rental system at a cost of €1 per 10Km.
Ebusco electrically powered vehicle
I took the opportunity to test drive the Ebusco demonstration vehicle at Kortrijk and found it perfectly acceptable in terms of acceleration and cruising abilities. From a drivers point of view it was little different to driving a conventional bus and it would be quite at home on any city streets either in the UK or mainland Europe. It was very quiet.

The demonstration area at Kortijk contained a number of zero emmision vehicles, confirming what was being shown in the exhibition halls. Electric power has arrived and manufacturers are seeking customers and local authorities to work with them to test out the on road charging methods that are now being offered. The Bombardier Primove system is being offered whereby the power source is underground and a bus takes the charge whilst dwelling at a bus stop. This technology requires considerable investment in infrastructure and the obvious co-operation with local authorities but appears to be a clever solution that takes away the range anxiety that has been part of electrical vehicle ownership. Primove 

 Above & below, VDL were showing their new Citea electrically powered vehicle, seen here in the demonstration park

Optare have pursued the EV route over the past few years with their battery powered versions of the Solo and latterly the Versa. Range anxiety has been a problem, but Optare are now claiming improvements due to new technology. They showed their Versa EV at the recent exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham (see below)

The electric vehicle market is fast moving with new entrants coming (and going) and it will be interesting to see how many of the manufacturers find success in this particular sector of the bus market.

 This Minitram was spotted on the streets of Stratford upon Avon in April 03
The Minitram idea has been demonstrated in Stratford upon Avon, this is an electrically powered vehicle designed to pick up power from concealed (below ground) wire guidance technology called 'Safeguide'. The vehicle can be driven on roads not covered by the Safeguide system so is flexible in that respect. The website here talks of "accurate navigation along narrow transit corridors - just like invisible rails - and precise docking at stops/platforms and stations. This is especially relevant in historic town centres, where conventional bus lanes or tram lines would be impractical."
Whether this system is still being actively marketed is difficult to know. 
One thing is certain, the age of electrically powered vehicles is upon us and exiting times lay ahead of us both in vehicle and battery technology and road infrastructure battery charging schemes which, added together, will form the basis of further success.  

We finish this article with two views from Tony Wilson of electrically powered vehicles. Both are based on what could be described as "milk float technology" and illustrate how things have now moved on, when we can now 

ride on 12 metre full-size buses with a range of 200 miles. 

In the meantime Focus Features and Focus Blog will continue to monitor and comment on future developments in the EV market.

David Gambles

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