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Proterra And The Future Of Electric Bus

It’s no secret that Tesla’s Model S sedan is now one of the most talked about cars on the market. However, its starting price tag of nearly $70,000 still keeps the vehicle out of most consumers’ reach. Car enthusiasts everywhere hear about the sedan’s impeccable style, impressive fuel economy, and high safety ratings, yet many still question who are lucky enough to afford the Model S’s high sticker price.And even if you are lucky enough to afford a

And even if you are lucky enough to afford a Tesla Model S, will you truly enjoy your daily drive-to-work in the cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles where the traffic is such a horrible problem for the past many years?

Proterra, a South Carolina-based manufacturer with Silicon Valley ties, thinks it can lead the electric public transportation revolution. Fueled by the two forces that are transforming renewable and alternative energy in this country – venture capital and the U.S Government – the company has already put a few dozen electric buses on the road, with the promise of more to come.  “Our technology could literally remove every single dirty diesel bus from cities,” said Proterra CEO Ryan Popple.

Proterra BE35 EcoRide bus near the company headquarters in Greenville, S.C.

Founded about a decade ago, Proterra originally set out to make buses powered by a different eco-friendly source: fuel cells. But as the hybrid and electric car businesses grew, and the prices of battery packs and electric motors fell, making a purely electric bus became more appealing. Proterra devised a 40-foot bus made of light materials, and then developed a fast-charging docking station that would let buses fuel mid-route in 10 minutes or less.

Unlike Tesla, Proterra didn’t receive any Department of Energy loans. It has raised more than $100 million in venture capital money. But the company does depend indirectly on public funding provided by the Obama Administration. Its customers, who are all public agencies, have relied on stimulus funds and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants to purchase the vehicles.

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Proterra shipped its first completed vehicle to Foothill Transit, which serves 22 cities in eastern Los Angeles County, in 2010. The agency, which has 350 buses, virtually all of them powered by natural gas, used stimulus funds to buy three electric buses and a docking station. In 2011, Silicon Valley venture capital aristocrats Kleiner Perkins invested in Proterra, and the company began to make further sales to small transit agencies: in Tallahassee, Florida, Reno, Nevada, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

As is the case with electric cars, electric buses are significantly more expensive than their gas-guzzling counterparts. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2012, the basic city bus cost $447,000 while hybrid diesel-electric buses cost $593,000. The base price of a Proterra has fallen to $825,000, from about $1 million a few years ago. However, over the 12-year lifetime of a vehicle, a diesel bus can consume between $500,000 and $600,000 of fuel, while Proterra would consume about $80,000 in electricity, based on average industrial electricity rates.

Another problem is the range–up to 30 miles–limits Proterra buses to certain routes, so it’s hard for an agency to go all in. Drivers have to be trained to brake and accelerate differently and to maneuver into the docking stations.

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Despite those complications, we do believe that the urban transit bus market will go entirely electric. For now, Proterra still remains a craft operation in a mass business. There are about 37 of its buses on the road. The company, which employs about 180 people, runs a single shift at its factory in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s on a pace to produce about two dozens buses this year. “ We’d have to make 50 per year to be profitable,” said Popple.

 An order of a couple of hundred buses doesn’t sound exciting, especially compared with Elon Musk’s promise of 100,000 electric cars per year. But electrifying America’s fleet of transit buses will powerfully put a larger dent in carbon emission than putting a few hundred thousand Tesla on the road. Share your comments with us.

 

 



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