The parade of good news for the electric bus industry came to an abrupt halt Sunday with startling revelations from the Los Angeles Times.
Journalist Paige St. John uncovered extensive problems with L.A. Metro’s efforts to deploy electric buses from BYD, a massive Chinese firm with a factory in Lancaster, California.
BYD built an effective influence campaign to smooth its journey through L.A.’s procurement process, even after an initial five-bus deployment had to be sent back for failing to perform, documents and evidence in the article show. The story reports BYD buses ran out of charge before their advertised range, wouldn’t start and had trouble climbing hills in downtown L.A.
The news complicates the rosy narrative that electric buses are sailing to total domination of the public transit segment, even as cities commit to full electrification of bus fleets. What remains to be seen is whether the revelations change public attitudes toward BYD itself, or electric buses in general.
The title of the Times piece refers not to BYD but to the broader market segment: “Stalls, stops and breakdowns: Problems plague push for electric buses.”
“That was an article about a company, but the headline was about a category,” Ryan Popple, CEO of electric bus maker Proterra, told GTM. “I hope that people don't paint a broad brush over the whole category.”
Proterra produces battery systems in Burlingame, California, and builds buses in metropolitan L.A. and Greenville, South Carolina. The company says it has sold 546 vehicles to 67 transit agencies across 30 states, and has delivered 167 buses so far.
In winning more public transit contracts with electric buses, Proterra, Canadian manufacturer New Flyer and BYD have pitted themselves against the incumbent diesel bus and the natural-gas bus industries (New Flyer also makes those types of drivetrains, so it’s part of the incumbent market too).
Municipalities like L.A., Mexico City, Cape Town and San Francisco raised the stakes further by adopting goals to fully electrify their fleets. This transition would cut off major metropolitan markets from the gas-powered bus industry and gas suppliers.
Reports of electric bus performance shortfalls give opponents of the products new ammunition. Indeed, advocates for natural-gas-powered vehicles jumped on the opportunity to share the story, describing it as evidence that the rush to electrification is misguided.
Todd Campbell, chair of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, shared the Times story on Twitter the day it came out with the comment, “Talk about #WrongWayLA! We need to stop spending precious resources on buses that don’t run.”
The reporting will likely surface in future conversations as other cities consider electric bus purchases or electrification goals. Campbell already included it in a letter to the California Air Resources Board cautioning against significant new funding for "unproven transformational technologies" to clean up heavy-duty transportation.
"If the technology is falling short of expectations, how certain can CARB be of the true air quality benefits that will be achieved by heavy-duty transformational technologies with zero tailpipe emissions?" he wrote.
The story raises questions about the role of political connections in L.A.'s bid evaluations for major contracts. More challenging for the electric bus industry nationwide, though, is the assertion that electric buses cannot match the operational abilities of the internal combustion engine vehicles they replace.
The initial five BYD buses performed far below the average distance traveled by L.A.’s conventional buses, and some of them stalled getting up hills. Metro took them off the road within five months, due to concern among staff about the vehicles' reliability.
BYD Senior Vice President Macy Neshati attempted to explain this underperformance by saying Metro drove the buses on hills that were too steep. Such a defense may prove deeply unsettling for transit agencies who wish to purchase buses capable of operating on their assigned routes.
In a statement released in response to the L.A. Times article, BYD President Stella Li noted, "We continue to grow as daily technological breakthroughs make our buses able to handle all kinds of challenging routes."
Elsewhere in the story, St. John cites two researchers who say electric buses “can't be swapped for current conventional vehicles without careful planning to reduce distances, speeds and hills.”
All of this might give a reader the impression that electric buses as a class have trouble driving.
Proterra has never told a customer to change routes in order to serve them with electric buses, Popple told GTM after an appearance at the Co-Invest Cleantech event in Chicago Wednesday.
The company works with transit agencies to identify the range and battery capacity required to serve a given route. Particularly long and arduous routes might not be doable with the current iteration of bus batteries; other routes might require a more powerful dual-motor drivetrain.
To demonstrate its vehicles' competency on steep grades, Proterra took a tour up the ski mountains surrounding Park City, Utah. The electric bus performance satisfied Park City Transit, which chose to deploy Proterra buses.
New Flyer similarly affirmed its confidence that electric buses don't require kid gloves to operate.
"We do not have any concerns about our battery electric buses performing on the same routes as traditional buses," Chris Stoddart, SVP of engineering and customer service, wrote in an email. "Our electric buses have the capabilities of going up any grade of hill that currently has transit bus service."*
This week’s news cycle sends a message to bus providers and transit agencies to make sure their procurement process and subsequent performance hold up to scrutiny. If they don’t, more stories are sure to follow, providing further evidence for anyone arguing that electric buses are a bad investment for public transit.
“You're not just going to eliminate the usage of diesel and natural gas for one of the largest commercial and diesel categories, and have natural gas and diesel go quietly," Popple said.
Despite the recent news, Popple said he remains confident that electrification is the future of public transit.
*This story was updated to include comments from New Flyer.