Los Angeles has become the Detroit of electric buses

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Los Angeles-based electric bus manufacturing companies aim to meet a growing demand for emission-free urban transit.

There’s a highly-charged competition going on in LA right now. And it’s between manufacturers of electric buses.

Transit agencies around the country are going electric. And here in LA, Metro has a goal of converting its bus fleet to 100 percent electric by 2030. The agency says it will spend around a hundred million dollars a year in contracts.

So under our noses a new industry is growing. There are at least ten companies in the Southland that are making and selling battery electric buses. The biggest is the Chinese-owned company BYD, which has a factory in Lancaster employing over 500 people, and Ebus in Downey. The Silicon Valley startup Proterra, with a new assembly plant in City of Industry, likens itself to the Tesla of electric buses.

But is it possible the capital of car culture is advancing the art of the humble bus – even as Metro currently grapples with a fall in bus ridership?

“We’re basically becoming the Detroit of electric transportation,” said Jeff Joyner, co-chair of the E4 Mobility Alliance, an industry council working to bring advanced transportation to the Southland.

“We had the supply chain from the aerospace industry… so those same engineers and those same companies that were supplying motors and various capacitors and technologies related to batteries are now supplying this advanced transportation industry,” Joyner said.

Metro prepares to go electric

To get an idea of what’s at stake here, consider a contract the Metro board is expected to approve on July 27. It’s for 35 buses that are 60 feet long and articulated (the long, bendy buses). It’s a contract worth millions.

These buses will replace those on Metro’s Orange and then its Silver lines. It’s the agency’s cautious first step toward its 2030 zero-emission bus goal.

Metro has to choose between bids from two companies: the Canadian company New Flyer, which has a service center in Ontario, California; and BYD.

A New Flyer Xcelsior XE40 battery bus in service in Manitoba. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

John Drayton, head of vehicle technology at Metro, is recommending the board select New Flyer, based on five scoring factors, including “technical, project management, past experience and price… those combination of factors for New Flyer outweighed the proposal we got in from BYD.”

Metro did purchase five BYD buses in 2015, which were sold back to the company.

“They were the first five buses that BYD sold in the U.S. and the performance did not meet our contract requirements,” Drayton said. “Primarily it was performance. We couldn’t get the bus to go up certain hills here in L.A… our staff actually had to back a bus down a hill and into an intersection.”

BYD officials say Metro chose to run the buses on steeper roads than had originally been agreed in the contract. The company says that once their buses were adjusted to meet the different conditions they operated perfectly, and were later sold to another transit authority and have been running smoothly ever since.

“I actually think very highly of BYD as a company,” Drayton said. “Keep in mind BYD is almost as big as General Motors. It’s a huge company. They’ve got enormous engineering capabilities and resources. And they’re a local company.We’re very mindful of that.”

A BYD electric bus in Bonn, Germany. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The bus companies also need to provide the charging infrastructure for their vehicles.

“We run buses 16, 18, even 24 hours a day at times. If we have a bus that rolls out at 3:30 in the morning, it might not come back until midnight. And it’s got to be sustainably operable that whole time. And that means with electric buses you either have to bring it back in for some form of midday charging, typically, or you’ve got to have charging out in the field, some kind of in route charging,” he said.

Drayton admits he’s nervous the technology won’t advance fast enough to reach that 2030 goal. Meanwhile, Metro is taking an incremental approach, starting in 2019 with the Orange and Silver lines.

“We’re deploying strategically in the places that have the best opportunities for success. We have a very deliberate plan on how electric buses work in these particular corridors,” he said.

“Keep in mind we’ve got another 170 lines to figure out here. I’m optimistic that we’re going to see continued improvement in buses in battery technology. We’re going to see some reduction in weight. There’s a lot of factors we’re looking for. We don’t see the perfect vehicle out there today.”

A rendering of a Siemens electric bus charging station. Courtesy of Metro. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Despite Metro’s declining ridership, Drayton expects buses to still be a major form of public transportation a dozen years from now.

“The buses are 75 to 80 percent of the ridership in transit in L.A. today. And even as we’re building out our rail lines, the most those rail lines get to is about 30 percent of our ridership. But the bread and butter of Metro transit is going to continue to be the bus fleet,” he said.

In 2011, Metro fully replaced its diesel buses with compressed natural gas (CNG) buses that are nearly as clean as their electric counterparts. It is still buying CNG buses, even as it plans to convert its entire fleet of 2,300 buses to all electric.

Proterra’s new factory

One of the electric bus companies that hopes to win future contracts with the agency just got to work here in the City of Industry. Proterra had a soft launch but will open officially with a big party in late July. Their buses are already on the roads in Seattle; San Antonio, Texas; Stockton, California and Reno, Nevada, and they make up the entire fleet for nearby Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley.

“I’m hoping to get to the point where Tesla is called the Proterra of carmakers, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Proterra CEO and president Ryan Popple. He previously served as the senior director of finance for Tesla.

“The biggest difference between Tesla vehicles and other light duty electric vehicles is Tesla was really the first company that redesigned the entire vehicle. Every element to that vehicle was designed to be an electric vehicle. So that’s the same approach we took on the heavy duty transit vehicle side,” he said.

Proterra was founded in 2004 and began assembling their electric buses in Greenville, South Carolina. Their new facility in City of Industry is meant to serve West Coast transit agencies. The company’s headquarters in Burlingame, Calif. is also the location of its battery testing facility.

“We do need our own battery facility because we… take our batteries through a level of testing that exceeds what you’d see in light duty vehicles. We shoot our battery packs to do ballistic testing. We drop very large pieces of metal on them. We spike them, we shake them, we freeze them, we heat them, we smash them,” Popple said.

“We do everything to a battery pack that could conceivably happen in a bus or a truck. Anyone who spent much time around transit knows that the transit vehicles go through a really really intense duty cycle. So we wanted to have full control over our technology.”

Plant manager Paul Mottram and customer program manager T.J. Nass at Proterra’s facility in City of Industry. One wall of the break room shows all the cities that have purchased Proterra buses. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Proterra’s new building is in a nondescript beige building, but step inside and you find yourself in a sleek gray and green reception area facing a giant photo of a Proterra bus, with a destination sign reading “Proudly Built in the USA.” On the opposite wall of the reception is printed “Our Vision: Clean Quiet Transport For All.”

Plant manager Paul Mottram lead us into the lunchroom, where employees get to play foosball, compete with a giant Jenga set, and drink beers on Friday afternoons.

“We’re trying to create a great environment for our people to work,” Mottram said.

T.J. Nass is Proterra’s West Coast customer program manager and works directly with the agencies that buy these buses.

“I think if you were to look at the benefits of of all electric you would see that electric kind of blows everything else out of the water when you’re doing that mile per gallon equivalent comparison,” Nass said.

Besides selling buses, the company also trains bus drivers on how to operate the new buses. Some of the buses employ regenerative braking, when the force created by applying the brakes also charges the battery. Others have overhead charging, in which the buses dock and a charging umbrella would quickly recharge the battery through a charging plate on the bus’s roof.

Unlike traditional buses that are made of steel, the gleaming white shells are made of a composite of fiberglass and carbon fiber making them more lightweight than traditional diesel or CNG buses.

Design is also a selling point for these emerging bus companies, with customers able to customize seats and windows, or add cup holders, Wi-Fi and USB ports.

“I was joking around the other day, it might have, like in an aircraft, where you’ve got a TV in the back of the seats,” Mottram said. “The industry itself is certainly starting to change. It’s about time.”

Inside the Proterra facility in City of Industry. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Why electric buses should be as “sexy” as cars

As we head out the door, Proterra’s T.J. Nass and Paul Mottram walk us by a wall of patents. The two dozen plaques bear the names of Proterra staffers who have developed innovations in battery electric bus technology.

It’s evidence of the start-up feel to this company — and the spirit of invention that currently charges this burgeoning industry.

“One of the reasons why we’re dedicated to this is, we want people to care as much about buses and trucks and school buses and all of these utilitarian vehicles that we depend on, that aren’t necessarily as sexy as cars,” said Proterra CEO Ryan Popple.

“Twenty years from now, buses may matter more than cars, especially as you move into a new era with autonomous vehicles. An autonomous vehicle, a ride-sharing vehicle, is more of a bus than it is a car… We want the humble transit bus to get its due attention,” he said.

But for electric buses to succeed, they, like electric cars, have to be supported by the infrastructure, or what Ashley Hand calls the “complete life cycle”. She is strategic advisor for LA CoMotion, an event coming to the Arts District in November that will demonstrate future modes of transportation.

“It’s how the fuel itself is generated, so thinking about the grid and grid modernization, so what is the source of our electricity, as well as how you actually build the infrastructure to support fleet electrification. So charging infrastructure but also things like solar roadways, for example, is a technology that is being tested that I think has a lot of potential here in California,” Hand said.

Even as the electric transportation industry looks to keep growing, companies are facing a federal withdrawal from clean technology investments. That may dissuade cities from investing in the proper infrastructure to support fleet electrification.

Among city leaders across the country, Hand said, “there is an increasing understanding that we can no longer rely on the federal government for this type of investment, which I think is a real shame.”