By on March 29, 2016

BYD ebus-12 electric bus badge, Images: © Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

“I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but EVs are great,” John Beltz Snyder boldly writes in the opening sentence of Autoblog’s “More research shows why EVs are awesome” article.

For more than 15 years, when not writing about cars, I’ve worked in the public transportation sector. With the exception of the two years I spent as an automotive test engineer, I’ve worked on bus and rail projects in engineering and managerial roles.

Mr. Synder, Autoblog’s resident electric-car guru, states a study published by the Indian Institute of Science shows how much money electric buses save over conventional diesel buses. He continues, in a somewhat non sequitur way, to claim that “switching to an EV is about as big of a difference a single individual can make without giving up driving altogether.”

Needless to say, the Autoblog article, and the study it referenced, is of great interest to me. Unfortunately, it misses the benchmark of the cavalierly claimed awesomeness.

BYD ebus-12 electric bus front 3/4, Images: © Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

The Indian Institute of Science study can be seen here. It goes something like this: Chinese car and bus company Build Your Dreams (BYD) provided one plug-in electric eBus bus to the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), for free, for the three-month study. Bangalore is a southern Indian city with a population of about 8.5 million people and an area of 274 square miles, roughly similar to New York City. BMTC has 6,418 vehicles in its fleet and daily ridership of over five million people.

The electric bus ran alongside legacy diesel buses to service a 170 kilometer (105 mile) daily route. The study focused on the cost of running both buses per day and, somewhat oddly, the revenue generated from each bus. Further, it went into the return on initial investment and the amount of CO2 emitted. The conclusion: the electric bus cost less to run, emitted less, was quieter, and wasted less energy when idle. The report states the return-on-investment on the electric bus comes after eight years of service, due to much higher initial cost of the EV bus — 30 million versus 8.5 million Indian Rupees (~$450,000 versus $128,000 USD based on current exchange rates).

There are, however, many issues with this study. First, the study does not mention specifically which diesel bus is used for comparison. The fact that there was only one BYD used is rather irrelevant, as all figures were averaged out. What is relevant is the lack of information on the size of the diesel bus, what engine it used, and the emissions standard to which it adheres. The study does not state year of production, odometer reading, or service history on the legacy bus(es). The study only shows that the legacy bus has more passenger capacity, which actually worked in its favor in the passenger-kilometer-per-day category.

BYD ebus-12 electric bus rear 3/4, Images: © Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Further, the study does not state the average speed of the buses, a very important factor as the fuel economy of the diesel bus can vary greatly between urban and rural areas. It makes no mention of which BMTC line the test was conducted on, the amount and frequency of stops, nor does it mention dwell time at each stop and each terminal. All of these factors are of great importance to transportation providers all over the world and, once presented, offer a viable vehicle comparison. To put it in car terms, sometimes a Tesla Model S is a better choice than a BMW 535d — and sometimes it’s not.

Most importantly, the study completely ignores several important cost factors. The overhead and capital costs associated with running and maintaining a fleet of electric buses is completely omitted. Also omitted is the recharge time and charging locations. Range is always an issue with electric vehicles and is a much greater issue with buses. Finally, weather was not taken into consideration, but the city Bangalore has never on record had a temperature lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be noted that the range of any electric vehicle diminishes as ambient temperatures get lower.

To accommodate an electric bus fleet, significant capital improvements would need to be made to any existing bus facilities. For starters, charging stations would need to be added in garages, along the bus routes, and/or route terminals. The amount of charging stations and their locations would vary greatly by route length, charge time, vehicle quantity, and the maximum range of the electric buses. Likewise, service and maintenance facilities would need to be suited toward electric vehicles with power connections. Personnel working in those facilities would need to be trained to work on electric buses or additional personnel would need to be hired. The cost of these capital improvements would be immensely significant, especially from an ROI point of view, and the study did not address it at all.

The daily life of a major city bus in North America can vary greatly, even if it’s only utilized on the same route its entire life. There are days when city buses are on the road for 18 hours per day with no more than 3 hours of terminal dwell time. Most buses are refueled daily, some twice per day, and the process to fill up a 125-gallon tank takes significantly less time than even the fastest electrical charging, which the study erroneously states to be an hour. Real world fuel economy of a modern 40-foot North American diesel bus ranges between 3.2 and 4.0 miles per gallon, and new hybrid buses get a maximum of about 6 mpg, depending on route type and load. That gives them a typical realistic range of 400 to 750 miles. BYD states that the range of its eBus on a single charge is 250 km, or 155 miles, and it takes five hours to fully charge.

Despite my love of the internal combustion engine, I do appreciate EVs, and I won’t dispute that the concept of an electric bus is a good one. But unlike what Mr. Snyder’s article and the Indian Institute of Science study suggest, the use of electric buses is rather limited for the time being due to upfront costs, charge times, and travel range. There are places that currently utilize electric buses, either on short independent lines or for the purposes of long-term studies. However, in most cases regarding existing intercity bus infrastructure, EV buses are not yet a viable replacement for conventional diesel or hybrid-diesel buses, and are therefore far from awesome.

BYD ebus-12 electric buses rear, Images: © Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Disclaimer: Several years ago the author rode in the pictured BYD electric prototype buses in Europe and North America. To say that quality of the early BYD buses was disappointing would be a great understatement. The buses pictured here were ordered by a European transportation company for testing purposes — but never ran as promised.

[Images: © Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars]

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29 Comments on “Public Transit Electric Avenue Certifiably Not “Awesome”...”

  • avatar

    We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we’ll…take a bus?

  • avatar

    *puts fingers in ears*

    La-la-la-la-la-electric vehicles are always awesome and better at everything-la-la-la-la-la!

  • avatar

    Building your argument on an Indian study on anything, especially one from a no-name random institute is not really a good idea. They seem slightly above China in studies, accuracy, scientific method, etc.

    This particular one was obviously just a puff piece for BYD.

    “From Figure 3, which compares the profits, it can also
    be inferred that the profits obtained for electric bus are
    significantly higher than those obtained for the diesel bus.
    This is because the maintenance and variable costs incurred
    by the electric bus are much lower when compared
    to the diesel bus, and also because of much higher efficiency
    of operation in terms of consumption of energy.”


  • avatar

    The IIS study may not prove that electric buses are always more thrifty than diesel, but Kamil hasn’t proven the opposite either.

    Maybe the better question is: “Under which circumstances (route size, city weather,…) are electric buses thriftier?”

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think Kamil needs to commission a study to prove the opposite to make a point here. He’s laying out an argument stating the study itself is flawed, and he also has some personal experiences with the buses in question.

      I’m sure if the study had given us a bit more information, Kamil would take that into account.

      • 0 avatar

        Does anyone really need to conduct a study?

        My skepticism meter went into the red when I came to this part:

        Normal charge: 6h for full charge
        Fast charge: 3h for full charge
        Range: 155 miles (249 km) (186 miles (299 km) according to some reports)

        3,000,000.00 CNY = 462,873.31 USD
        Chinese Yuan Renminbi ↔ US Dollar

        So basically you want almost half a million for a bus that has under 200 mile range and has 3-6hrs downtime?

        So you need pretty much twice the amount of buses than you would normally need AND the buses are by some margin, more than twice as expensive?

        Obviously in some carefully planned routes it works, you can go to wikipedia and see that they are already on every continent it seems to me you need some Tesla engineering in them to really change over.

        It certainly would not work in developing nations.

  • avatar

    The issue will probably be decided via bribes.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The business model should also consider battery degradation and battery replacement costs for a BEV, along with salvage/trade value when you’re done using the vehicle.

    Speaking as a former Leaf driver, these are major issues for a BEV.

    Having said all that, Bangalore may still decide to proceed with more EV buses just to clean up the air, despite the expense.

  • avatar

    “in most cases regarding existing intercity bus infrastructure, EV buses are not yet a viable replacement for conventional diesel or hybrid-diesel buses, and are therefore far from awesome.”

    I’m not sold on EVs myself, but you’re falling into the trap of bogus either-or arguments. It’s possible that EVs could serve useful roles for specific purposes, such as on short-hop routes in busy city centers, for example.

    In any case, buses tend to suck, regardless. One reason that public transit doesn’t work well in the US is because of the widespread post-WWII effort to scrap the streetcar lines and rely upon buses. Burying the systems would have been expensive but would have ultimately made them more appealing.

  • avatar

    I’ve pretty much stopped reading Autoblog over stuff like this. There’s practically no critical analysis of anything. and Autoblog Green is the worst, they’re pretty credulous about anything relating to EVs.

  • avatar

    My local transit agency, King County Metro, is currently testing three battery-electric buses in real-world use. Early results seem to suggest that they may be appropriate for certain routes but not fleetwide.

    They charge fully in ten minutes from an induction charging station that has been installed at one terminal of a test route that is a relatively short local suburban route. Pluses include silent running (which, in addition to increasing comfort, reduces political opposition to expanding bus service), much reduced powertrain maintenance (even after battery replacement every few years), and reduced GHG emissions in our very-clean-grid neck of the woods. Minuses beyond the obvious (range) are mostly about scheduling. It’s hard to recover if the bus gets behind, because it has to have its ten minutes to charge, and the break between trips is only a bit longer than ten minutes on this particular route.

    In central cities, a battery is not needed. The agency has a trolleybus network using poles and overhead wires on about 15 central-city routes. The trolleys are less flexible than conventional buses, but have superior operational performance on steep hills and in low-speed environments. Where your bus route is never going to change, they can be a good choice.

    Further, not every EV has to be fully electric. The agency has experienced excellent results from hybrid-electric buses on local routes. The electric-assisted powertrains are far happier than straight diesel and conventional automatic transmissions where the bus is stopping every two blocks all day and constantly climbing steep hills. Powertrain and brake maintenance costs are lower, the buses return significantly better mileage, and they are much quieter and smoother.

    On freeway commuter service, by contrast, the hybrid isn’t enough of an improvement over the conventional diesel to offset the additional cost. Of course, this being a government agency that is answerable to local legislators, the hybrids wind up on a lot of freeway service anyway because they are the newest and nicest buses in the fleet and suburban legislators can outvote city legislators.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the hybrid trolley buses are the best solution. Buses run on the same loops. Running some power lines will be easier than spending huge piles of money on batteries and fast chargers.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a King County Metro commuter. I live north east of Seattle and I wish my bus was one of the newer hybrids just because mine seems to break down often and the seats aren’t great. I do like the trolley buses as they are quiet (comparatively). I’m surprised and glad the city kept the overhead lines. I don’t have any data but I’ve heard the new hybrid buses are not so reliable. They do run the hybrids on the main C, D, and E lines.

  • avatar

    If visible emissions are any indicator or real pollution, the current bus fleet in Bangalore is far worse than any I’ve seen in the US. The traffic is also terrible, so I assume an EV bus would reap large rewards while not moving. I don’t think most buses have AC (windows were always open), so that would be a big save as well, if they were willing to go without.

    I’m curious about the reliability of charging in India/Bangalore. Power outages are VERY common, although usually short. Relying on the current grid for business critical items is not an option. Losing power at a charging station for an hour could really jam up the bus network.

    Side note – those pretty, flush mounted headlights/taillights would be broken in a week. If you’re going to play in Bangalore traffic, you’re going to want some real bumpers.

  • avatar

    I lived in San Francisco for ten years and always was happier when a bus route was electric, just for the reduction in noise, but they were also quicker to accelerate, even on the flats. As a pedestrian, I also appreciated having no exhaust spewing from badly tuned buses. These were trolleys, so inflexible, and battery electric buses would fix that.

    That quietness would have been worth paying more for, if that ha been an option. Fewer boom boxes (it was a long time ago!), which I attributed to being so quiet; the diesels were so damned loud that no one wanted to shout over the noise, and the electrics were so quiet that people would talk, in low voices. It was a huge difference.

    • 0 avatar

      Trolley buses which are powered from overhead electric wires but run on rubber tires for flexibility can meet certain needs very well. If they also had an on-board battery pack which allowed them to leave the grid for miles at a time they would be even more flexible. That could eliminate the need to stop while recharging.

  • avatar

    In many cities across the US electric mass-transit was normal until WWII.

    Why worry about batteries when streetcars run on-grid? Maybe the solution from 100 years ago is the best.

    See Prague. It looks like it works pretty well. They even lubricate the tracks to make the trams near silent.

    Check this out — it’s a webcam mounted on Prague’s lubricating car:

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I was very impressed with Prague’s public transit system when I visited there last summer. And I’m a suburbs kid who’s only ridden a city bus in the US a few times.

  • avatar

    My experience in academic publishing is that editors and reviewers seldom question research papers that show advantages for green technologies, but are highly critical and likely to reject papers that show poor environmental or economic results for green technologies. Thus the publish or perish environment of academia will tend to slant the research designs and data analysis to favor the green technology, which means leaving out major costs, assuming continued heavy “green” subsidies, and/or not considering lifecycle emissions (i.e. the bus might be cleaner in operation, but it was likely not cleaner during its manufacture, and the source of India’s electricity is heavily slanted towards coal). You can be sure that every bus system in the world would happily switch to electrics if they truly provided cleaner and cheaper operation, but in most cases they actually aren’t that much cleaner and/or they are a lot more expensive under realistic scenarios.

  • avatar

    I would suggest that the author contact CARTA, in Chattanooga, TN, and ask about their now 20-year-old electric bus program using American-made buses. Granted their range is probably shorter than the BYD buses, but they have 20 years of live experience with those buses and not a mere three months.

  • avatar

    The original Autoblog editorial actually ended on a pretty fair minded note: “Mobility is important, and for many people, driving is a necessary part of life. The right EV, though, could lead to some savings down the road (especially if you manage a fleet of vehicles), but the meaningful impact for the planet is something you can’t put a price tag on.”

    In other words, the author didn’t claim EVs are a bargain today, but rather said they might lead to long term financial savings and generally have a lower negative environmental impact. Hardly an over the top conclusion.

  • avatar

    Diesel city buses are a deafening, pollution-spewing plague upon us all. I’m pleased that urea and DPFs have been phased in, and then hybrid technology, but “less awful ” still ain’t good. I’d love to see electric buses everywhere they’re feasible, whether powered by overhead trolley lines, batteries, or whatever. Short battery electric shuttles for low-speed routes work awesome as well; we’ve had them in my fair city for 20 years.

  • avatar

    The electric buses would be a good fir for terminal operations at an airport.

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