Electric commuter buses – it seems obvious if you think about it, doesn’t it?

We’re all thinking it

Electric buses. Why would it work – or not work? If we think about commuter buses, the kind that run a fixed route with a fixed schedule, it seems the obvious application for any new, more efficient technology. It has a predictive route that it drives, repeatedly. This means that the energy and power requirements are known and defined and the needs and wants of the operators/owners, commuters, drivers and public at large are pretty much understood. 

The owners or operators want costs to be low. This comprises running costs like fuel or energy as well as maintenance cost and longevity. It all has to do with return on their investment and low hassle factor. It must work cheaply, reliably and be cost effective to buy and operate.

The commuters also want consistency, the bus must arrive on time, every time, and it must never break down. It must be comfortable, and a quiet, smooth operation being an obvious bonus. They must be able to get on when it suits them, and be able to trust that it will take them where they plan to go without them having to think or worry about it.

Ease of use

The driver wants a vehicle that can do the job without hassle. Not having to shift gears or struggle with limited power or torque is an absolute bonus. Drivers have to focus on driving a bus in busy, congested streets filled with cars and aggressive taxis, commuters by the thousands, shift after shift, day after day. Therefore, driving a vehicle that is quiet, responsive, does not require gear shifts and allows controlling the speed only using the accelerator is an absolute step forward.

The public at large also appreciates the silence being offered by electric buses, not to mention the lack of stinky, smelly diesel fumes and all the health problems associated with that. We now know that these noxious fumes are especially bad for children and many are dependent on buses for their school run.

There are other reasons why electric commuter buses are a no brainer. Commuter buses have the benefit of a fixed route and a fixed schedule which means that things like charging cycles can be planned, and size of motors and batteries can be specified. The environment is mostly predictable and range anxiety can be eliminated by design and planning.

With these facts before us, why have all the buses in South Africa not taken the leap already? Well, like all things in life, there are always unknowns and surprises. As Murphy has so aptly stated, if something can go wrong, it invariably will.

With this in mind, Golden Arrows Bus Services (GABS) tackled this evolutionary next step with an open mind. Armed with the knowledge that there are now thousands of electric buses running all over the world in many metros they did their homework and decided to start with a pilot of two buses to iron out all the wrinkles and make sure that this will be a successful transition.

The first question is: where will the buses come from? Well, not a bad idea to go to one of the biggest makers of electric buses in the world, BYD. There is also a legacy of locally assembled buses in South Africa, so best start out with an agreement of aims to build future buses under license.

But wait, there is more

The second matter is the big elephant in the room… Eskom. Suddenly, South Africa has morphed from a country used to cheap, abundant electricity to a country constantly hampered by ‘load shedding’. Electricity is not a given after all, it seems. This is a problem since electric buses need electricity reliably, cheaply, and predictably. It is non-negotiable. The way that GABS tackled the problem is firstly to install solar power at their depos, plenty of it, which they wanted to do anyway. They have a lot of roof space available, and it is the way of the future, especially in South Africa. The only problem is that the sun does not shine at night. The solution is to charge the buses at night from Eskom (when there is normally a surplus of power) and then run the buses on the morning peak hour schedule. During the day the buses are charged with solar power and can then do the late afternoon peak run. This works well but there is always the risk of Eskom not being able to deliver and, therefore, more solar and on-site battery storage is also on the cards

OK, now they are ready for the pilot. Order two buses. In SKD (Semi Knocked Down) form so that they can be assembled in South Africa by Busmark. It is good to learn the lessons of building electric buses as well. Secondly, run the two buses on a fixed route for a while. You do not want to risk upsetting customers when they discover that they are guinea pigs, and the experiment went badly. One bus was run empty and the other with 44 sandbags simulating a full bus. This also provided the opportunity to measure the energy consumption difference between a full bus and an empty one at the same time and get a feeling for the safety margin.

Cheaper to run

As it turned out, the tests went smoothly. The buses proved that they could handle the rigors of a daily GABS scheduled run in Cape Town, taking the mountainous terrain (yes also the notorious Hospital Bend) in its stride. These two buses have been running as part of the GABS fleet for the last year and even though they are more expensive to buy, they are also cheaper to run, saving R657 000 in diesel. This is good news, paving the way for more electric buses to be introduced, not only in Cape Town but also in other metros in South Africa. If the solar solution can work in Cape Town, which has the least sun in the winter in South Africa due to the shortest days and most cloud cover, it should work better in other parts of the country. There is a significant import substitution effect; public transport uses a lot of fuel comparatively and switching over to locally produced electricity reduces our reliance on mostly imported fuel, saving a lot of foreign valuta.

The last hurdle would be to build these buses at scale locally to avoid import taxes and achieve economies of scale to reduce costs and to create local know-how to build upon. Now, for the taxis…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Theo is a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur that loves thinking – and writing – about the future.

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