Is This Electric Bus the Tesla of the Mass-Transit World? Proterra Thinks So

Just as electric cars have existed in one form or other for more than a hundred years, so too have electric trucks and busses.  And just as the history books are littered with the names of companies who tried — and all-too-often failed — to bring electric cars to the mainstream, so too are there an equal number of companies determined to bring all-electric commercial vehicles to market.

Proterra has high hopes for its longer-range electric bus.

Proterra has high hopes for its longer-range electric bus.

These days, thanks in part to cars like the Tesla Roadster and Tesla Model S, Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt, electric cars are no-longer considered the slow, boring vehicles they once were. But in the world of commercial vehicles  and public transportation where high duty cycles and limited down time means vehicles are pushed to within an inch of their mechanical existence, battery electric vehicles have been restricted to small, predictable routes where limited range isn’t a concern.

U.S. startup Proterra wants to change that, and it believes it has the vehicle to do it: a full-size street-legal electric bus which can not only cope with the arduous of rush hour in our busiest cities but also cover more than 250 miles per charge.

As Fastcoexist reports, the company — which has offices in both South Carolina and Silicon Valley — is no stranger to the world of electric vehicles. Prior to its current electric bus, it marketed a previous-generation electric bus to airports and shuttle services as a zero-emission way to get large amounts of people short distances. With a range of just 30 miles per charge however, it could only be used on very specific bus routes, despite using an overhead rapid charging system that could replenish the battery packs in just ten minutes.

That vehicle might not have been enough to get the attention of a large number of fleet operators who needed a vehicle with a longer range, but it was certainly enough to convince investors and advocates that Proterra had what it took to move on to its next-generation of electric busses.

Proterra is confident the new battery pack gives it an edge over the competition.

Proterra is confident the new battery pack gives it an edge over the competition.

With plenty of positive feedback from its first generation of electric busses, Proterra’s engineers took the next logical step, sourcing a higher-capacity, longer-range battery pack to power a brand-new electric bus.

Taking everything that was good about the original — including its U.S.-made, super-tough balsa resin and carbon fiber construction, HVAC system, fast charging system and light, airy interior, Proterra went back to the drawing board to build an electric bus which was capable of far more than just airport runs.

“We’re taking a technology that’s used to power $100,000 sports cars, and we’re putting it into the absolute most accessible transportation asset in the country,” Ryan Popple, President and CEO of Proterra told FastCoexist. A former Tesla Motors employee, Popple knows that range anxiety is just as real for electric busses as it is for electric cars and has just supervised the installation of a long-range battery pack into one of the Proterra busses that on a recent test run managed 250 miles on a single charge.

With nobody on board, 250 miles of range was achieved. Proterra says 130 should be possible fully-laden.

With nobody on board, 250 miles of range was achieved. Proterra says 130 should be possible fully-laden.

Admittedly, the bus was empty, but Popple, whose team expected to see 200 miles of range before the bus run flat, said even with a full charge and a full compliment of passengers on board, more than 130 miles per charge was easily possible. That’s far more than the most demanding on bus routes in major metropolitan areas.

“We think we’ve now hit the range that really removes any sort of range anxiety,” he continued. “There’s no physical reason why you couldn’t deploy zero-emission, quiet, high-tech buses.”

Proterra is just one of many companies focusing its attention on changing the way mass-transit operates with an ultimate goal of removing fossil fuels form the equation all together. Unlike some bus manufacturers which either convert existing diesel vehicles to electricity or rely on asian-built busses which are than adapted to conform to U.S. safety standards, Proterra’s U.S.-built busses and impressive all-electric range could give it the edge in the marketplace.

But like Tesla Motors and its early Roadster, Proterra’s biggest challenge is ensuring it can build enough vehicles to keep up with demand. While Tesla Motors was limited to the number of chassis UK firm Lotus had agreed to build for the Roadster, Proterra’s small but dedicated team are limited by the size of their facility and staff.

“The business case works today for replacing diesel with electric, but the scale of the problem is so big,” he explained. “There are diesel bus companies that build 50 buses a week. We can get there—Tesla grew from building a couple cars a week to today a hundred or 200 cars a day. We know technology companies can scale faster than anyone ever expected.”

Proterra has the goal of switching all public transit to electricity.

Proterra has the goal of switching all public transit to electricity.

For now then, Proterra’s biggest challenge is ensuring it can scale its technology to the kind of levels that would make it the logical choice for commercial fleet operators looking to retire old, heavily-polluting busses with its range of electric busses.

And with so much of the world still relying on public transportation rather than personal transportation, Proterra — and anyone else looking to jump into the marketplace — can stand to make a far bigger impact on our global emissions and transportation than any one car company, Tesla or otherwise.



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