All-electric city buses face challenges

City of Asheville electric bus
MEAN GREEN MACHINE: Technical challenges have made the rollout of Asheville's electric buses a bumpier ride than city officials anticipated. Photo by Brooke Randle

After delays and much anticipation from local climate and transit advocates, Asheville deployed five new zero-emission battery-electric city buses on June 1. The buses promise to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 270 tons per year — a third of Asheville’s annual target for emissions cuts — and provide a cleaner, quieter experience for riders and passersby.

“I think it’s exciting to think about a future where we have cleaner air and where we have quieter transportation, and certainly one that’s utilizing few resources and one that can reduce our carbon footprint,” says Keith McDade, chair of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment. 

“There’s no engine, there’s no tailpipe, there’s not exhaust, so if you’re waiting at the bus stop, you’re not going to hear that engine roaring, like you would with some of our other buses,” adds Assistant Transportation Director Jessica Morriss.“It’s a great environmental thing, for transit in particular. It’s also just a great thing for us to have in terms of maintaining a healthy overall fleet and providing high-quality service.”

But the addition of the new vehicles hasn’t been entirely seamless. Questions linger about the buses’ capability to keep up with their diesel and hybrid counterparts on Asheville’s demanding roads. And it remains uncertain whether the city’s goal of transitioning to a 100% electric fleet by 2030 is feasible when current funding for transit has fallen short of the goals set in the Transit Master Plan. 

Transit technicalities

According to a May 29 city press release, the buses, built by Greenville, S.C.-based Proterra, have undergone “thorough testing” since their first arrival in December to determine the capabilities of their battery-electric technology. Features such as speed and travel range have been shown to fluctuate depending on temperature, weight and changes in elevation.

“If you’re driving on a lot of hills, you’re using more energy,” notes Morriss. “Another variable that comes into play is the load, or how many people are on the bus. With a full bus, you’re using more energy.”

Freezing or hot conditions also impact battery life and performance. “As you can imagine, it’s when you put all of those variables together [that] there’s different outcomes. One day, a bus might be able to run on the S3 route all day long if conditions are good,” Morriss explains. “If it’s cold outside, it might not be able to, and it might need a recharge at some point during the day.”

Battery issues aside, the new buses also measure 35 feet, 5 feet longer than most of the buses in ART’s 23-bus fleet. That extra length prevents the vehicles from making the tight turns needed to navigate many of Asheville’s narrow and winding roads. Morriss says Proterra only had longer models available and the purchase was not an oversight by the city.

And while the cost of the buses was largely offset by grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration, City Council members voted on June 11 to spend an additional $216,000 on new fareboxes and software — “because staff thought fareboxes from the old buses could be reused in the new buses,” according to a staff report — as well as cover the new vehicles’ registration fees, design/construction costs for charger installation, acceleration and brake pedal extenders and GPS trackers. The increase brings the total investment from the city to just over $830,000 for all five buses.

Working out the kinks

Matt Horton, chief commercial officer at Proterra, says that while battery-electric technology remains imperfect, demand for electric vehicles continues to grow worldwide. Since the first Proterra electric buses hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2010, 90 cities across the U.S. have added the buses to their fleets and are also experiencing the growing pains of the new technology.

“There are lots and lots of cities that have been through this process already, which is really helpful. We’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons over the years,” Horton says.

Cities that purchase Proterra’s electric buses are required to provide additional training for drivers to mitigate some of the issues related to range. That includes teaching drivers to manage the bus’s regenerative brakes, which increase range by redirecting energy to the battery while the driver slows the bus.

“If you do that right, you’re going to recapture a lot of energy that will enable you to drive a long distance during the day,” Horton says. “If the bus driver isn’t used to it and they’re jamming on the accelerator and then jamming on the brakes, you’re going to be a lot less energy efficient, and that’s going to impact your range.” 

Route planning also plays a major role in getting the most out of the vehicles. Currently, Asheville’s electric buses are only deployed on three routes: S3 and S6, both of which run down Hendersonville Road, and 170, which follows U.S. 70 to Black Mountain. All three routes were chosen for their relatively flat, straight topography that maximizes range and can accommodate the buses’ length. 

McDade suggests that transit and climate activists should manage expectations of new technologies and be prepared to modify and adjust as needed while companies work through the issues.

“Adapting to our context is one of the great challenges of moving toward sustainability,” McDade says. “We can understand a lot [about the technology], and there are going to be things that we have to figure out along the way.”

Hybrid theory

While the city was scheduled to add three more electric buses by the end of the year, Morriss says those plans have changed. Asheville will now wait to purchase new vehicles until improvements in the technology increase bus capabilities.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Morriss maintains about the delay. “I think that what we’ve decided at this time is that the electric vehicle technology in general, but also electric bus technology, is changing very rapidly, so we are pressing pause at this time so we can continue to evaluate other [options] as new technology emerges.” 

Horton agrees that the technology is quickly evolving, noting that Proterra constantly seeks to update features and improve materials to make its buses lighter in weight. “We see batteries that have more energy storage, and our buses are getting more and more efficient over time,” he says.

While the purchase of additional electric buses is currently in limbo, on April 23, Asheville City Council authorized City Manager Debra Campbell to apply for a federal grant to purchase two hybrid electric buses. Transportation Department Director Ken Putnam, who spoke during the meeting, said that transitioning to a fully electric fleet remains a goal but the addition of hybrid buses still represents progress. 

“We want to transition, but what we’re trying to do too is anytime we can get an advantage of a grant, we’re trying to apply for it so that we can take care of the immediate need to try to get buses in our fleet,” Putnam said in April.

The city also plans to add two diesel buses to the ART fleet by the end of the year. McDade says he does not consider the shift in vehicle acquisition a setback for the city’s energy goals.

“I think that it’s important to take these kinds of steps. We’re pioneering a new direction,” McDade says. “I think that many of the things that we do on our journey on to 100% renewable [energy], on our journey toward carbon reduction, on our journey toward more sustainability, they’re all going to be small experiments of sorts, because there is no clear road map that others have championed.”

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18 thoughts on “All-electric city buses face challenges

  1. Bright

    All the electric buses in the world won’t help the lack of available hours and routes and buses that are rarely on time, or that skip stops altogether. The new buses are impressive but the management of the transit (which means getting place to place, duh) is pi%& poor. All froth, and no beer…once again.

  2. Lulz

    LOL but their moronic base of voters think that they can wave a magic wand and gas vehicles will disappear. LOL hey elitist, how’s the Smokey Park bridge these days? People like you stood in the way of progress. And while you idiots were selling out the city to developers and bringing in tourists, you must’ve assumed they’d get here by foot lulz. Fools. And as far as these buses are concerned, they’ll be off the road sooner than you think. The tech is not there to make them viable for use. But the people pushing them are credentialed dunces who can’t even put air in the tires. Should’ve bought smaller buses with hybrid tech for in town use. But this is Asheville where we push people into ecoli infested waterways and promote it as something to be proud of.. Until one day you get sued because someone dies from it. Who am I kidding, they’ll just raise property taxes to pay for that too. That’s their problem and why foolish decisions are made in all aspects of city led dealings.

    • Lew Gelfond

      Smaller busses with hybrid tech. I agree. More of them with better coverage and flexibility.
      Since buses don’t have max ridership on all routs. I’m comfortable with a more flexible system
      My need is to sell these buses that don’t work and can’t turn when you need them to turn.
      Please consider more smaller vehicles on all routes that come every 15 minutes. There you go.
      Lew Gelfond, W AVL

    • Bright

      …righto…and push people toward ecoli infested restaurants… Aville: A confederacy of dunces.

  3. Elliott

    Why not tell the good citizens of Asheville you’ve already dumped a $40,000 motor into one of those new electrics?

    You didn’t clean up the environment. You wrapped a tailpipe from Asheville most likely thru China and wrapped back around to somewhere like Africa for the raw materials like Cobalt, which are then shipped, refined, shipped, processed, shipped, assembled, only to get to the city of Asheville with a higher initial carbon footprint than a traditional bus then run off of our power grid. A grid which is presently only as clean as coal and natural gas fired plants allow it to be. At least it’s not as bad as Tesla drivers in Wyoming drawing over 80% of their power from coal.

    If anyone wants to know why ALL the buses aren’t going to be electric already it’s because the people of Asheville could literally never afford purely electric vehicles as the technology currently exists and as our power grid exists… it isn’t actually cleaning up the air.

    • Lulz

      It was never about cleaning up anything. It’s about facades and perceptions. And an unlimited pool of funds allows them to be that way.

    • Dave Erb

      It never ceases to amaze me that people who wouldn’t know a Peukert curve from a pickled cucumber feel qualified to claim that electric vehicle advocates are ignorant. If you’d like some actual data, instead of just shooting from the lip, you could start by reading this:
      https://blog.ucsusa.org/dave-reichmuth/new-data-show-electric-vehicles-continue-to-get-
      It’s beginner level information, but you have to walk before you can run.

      The ART system may or may not be having problems, but that doesn’t mean electric vehicles (including Proterra buses) aren’t ready for prime time. If you don’t want to take the word of an automotive engineer with 40 years’ real world experience (me), how about taking Motor Trend’s?
      https://www.motortrend.com/cars/tesla/model-3/2018/tesla-model-3-vs-bmw-330i-vs-genesis-g70-comparison-test/
      There are many reasons Tesla is selling 1000 Model 3’s per day right now (it’s the best selling passenger car in the US by revenue, 4th best by units sold), but ignorance isn’t among them.

      Come join us this September 14th, and get some legitimate information, for a change.
      https://driveelectricweek.org/event.php?eventid=1908

      Dave Erb

      • Elliott

        https://publications.anl.gov/anlpubs/2009/03/63740.pdf

        I was only citing the same “Well-to-Wheels Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analysis of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles” study Engineering Explained cited on his Youtube channel in defense of eletric cars

        If you actually read the report it says that electrics and hybrids can certainly help “except when the marginal grid generation mix was dominated by oil or coal.”

        The average car in north America is over 13 years old. The price of a new Nissan Versa, is baseline $13,000 new, for a vehicle that has an estimated commercial life of up to 20 years. A Tesla 3 by comparison starts at around $35,000 new. They presently charge about $170/hr for maintenance.

        Wait… maybe you shouldn’t take my word for it .. how about someone known for working on Tesla vehicles.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq5c4jGR2gM

        Since you have 40 years engineering experience in the automotive industry you also probably already know that the first electric taxi fleet was attempted around the 1890s. By the 1920s an Edison Electric delivery truck was so expensive that you could buy 3 Ford Model Ts for the price of the battery pack upgrade… not the truck… just the bigger battery.

        This is why, despite once commanding 40% of the market share of vehicles on the roads in North America, electrics went extinct.

        They tried again in the 1970s and again it failed.

        So what exactly in the last hundred years has improved so much? An entry level vehicle is closer to $14,000 not $35,000.

        https://www.energy.gov/timeline/timeline-history-electric-car

        • luther blissett

          “The price of a new Nissan Versa, is baseline $13,000 new”

          Weird how you picked the absolute cheapest new car on the US market, a car made specifically to be the cheapest new car on the US market. (The whole-industry average is closer to $38,000.) The cherries are ripening and ready to be picked.

          • Elliott

            https://www.autonews.com/sales/8-first-half-sales-tales

            Which is working out great for new sales totals.

            We can go with a Ford Fiesta if you prefer since U.K. sales haven’t completely tanked.

            https://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/britains-best-selling-cars-june-2019/

            I went with a Versa because my wife’s second car was also in a class from around $14,000 – $18,000 back in 2006. At 13 years old it’s nearing a quarter million miles. When I checked engine compression at 219,000 miles it was a tad low, but still within factory spec. When I checked valve lash, it was a tad on the loose side, but still well within factory spec. It also has a Jatco CVT which has never failed once. The point I’m trying to make here, is that when you take care of them even ‘entry level’ vehicles can hold up a long time.

            My grandfather’s Ford Ranger was a 2000 model with a 4.0 OHV engine, electrically commanded 4-wheel drive, 4-wheel ABS, 6000 lbs. towing capacity with a load distributing hitch. It’s 19 years old this past April, about 225,000 miles on it and it’s still a daily driver. It was about $18,000 NEW. This truck was literally paid off by a different generation. I can’t get rid of it because I can literally rebuild everything on it including the transmission cheaper than buying any new truck.

            https://www.autotrader.com/Ford/Ranger/2000

            That is the finish line for electric cars. When they can perform at that level in a manner we can sustain they will be ready.

            Until then it’s still a lot of neat ideas, wishful thinking, but little true progress.

        • Dave Erb

          Your Argonne National Lab (anl.gov) reference was published in February 2009, and the data it uses appear to be from 2007. Take a look at the change between 2009 and 2016 on the second map in the ucsusa.org study I cited, which is also based on Argonne’s models and data. There was major improvement in those seven years, and we’ve already progressed three years past 2016. When you aim 12 years behind a fast-moving target, you’re bound to miss.

          To your second point, there are numerous automotive technologies that didn’t work well (or at all) 50 or 100 years ago, but are very effective now: dual clutch transmissions, electronic fuel injection, turbochargers, cruise control, backup cameras, electronic stability control, … Creating better futures is what engineers and technicians do; sometimes they have to look to the past to do it.

          • Elliott

            When the argument the data is making is ‘neither oil nor coal make electrics clean’ and my argument is by and large the energy grid hasn’t been cleaned up in the last 10 years, it doesn’t matter if the data stating ‘oil and coal don’t make electrics clean’ is ten years old when many states such as Wyoming burned about as much coal this past winter as ever.

            https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=WY#tabs-4

            To the point about your updated study performing ‘better’ does NOT equate to ‘READY’.

            You still never addressed the cobalt sourcing issue once scaled to over a billion cars.

            Understand, I have been a Tesla fan since before they made the bodies of the cars they sold, but I also understand the grim reality of how our decisions on this matter will decide the course of the 21st century the way our decisions on oil decided the way the 20th played out. Not to mention how the sociopolitical landscape is still being shaped.

            When you engineer a $14,000 to $18,000 electric car that can be affordably maintained out to 13-20 years EVs will be ready for “prime time”.

            Until we can deliver on the promise of a truly affordable new electric car we haven’t engineered a solution. We’ve made a really cool toy.

            Also before you get too worked up about Tesla sales, we would all do well to remember the Dodge Caliber also sold that well for it’s first two to three years.

  4. Bright

    The biggest problem with any “new” technology in Aville is the lack of intelligent people to properly manage it. Their greed overtakes everything…once again, all froth and no beer.

    • Lulz

      Government is bloated with people hired on the basis of everything except actual qualifications. Unreal that they didn’t know what the length of the buses were until they arrived.

  5. WhyoWhy

    “Dunces,” “moronic,” “idiots,” “fools,” “dunces.”

    I see that little time or thought has been given to making these forums actually constructive. Maybe in another 5 years?

    • Lulz

      Why yes, let’s be constructive. I’ll watch as my taxes go up and shut up about it as not to offend. Meanwhile the people running the show don’t even know what they’re buying. Or act surprised when the costs of something quadruples. But they don’t care as they have the pockets of others to raid whenever they want to.

      • WhyoWhy

        You’re right, I’m wrong. Lunatic raving is much better than constructive dialog, and really raises the bar.

        • Lulz

          LOL your problem is you don’t want to acknowledge what it true but what you want to be true. So if I’m a lunatic for calling someone a credentialed dunce for ordering a bus and not knowing how long it is, so be it. From my point of view, these people have no business making decisions. They’re shown time and time again that they have literally no common sense.

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