What value does rail transit bring to a city? The bottom line is increased capacity. You can squeeze a lot of people into multiple rail cars, all driven (or overseen) by one conductor in the lead car.
There are other benefits, too, of course, like fast electric acceleration (if it’s not diesel powered), smooth riding (if the rails are in a separate right-of-way and not stuck in street traffic), and general reliability (again, if the rail travels in a separate right-of-way and not slowed by cars). And as a uniquely permanent infrastructure investment, with tunnels and elevated tracks (sometimes) and fixed stations, it can help stimulate real estate investment to encourage thriving, walkable neighborhoods around it.
But technology may make this beloved, nineteenth century style of transit propulsion obsolete. I’m talking about electric platooning buses, which makes use of the self-driving car technology that is rapidly advancing. As the U.S. Department of Energy defined it in a recent post about platooning trucks:
Platooning involves the use of vehicle-to-vehicle communications and sensors, such as cameras and radar, to virtually connect two or more trucks together in a convoy. The virtual link enables all of the vehicles in the platoon to communicate with each other, allowing them to automatically accelerate together, brake together, and enables them to follow each other at a closer distance than is typically possible with unlinked trucks.
If we can place 8 or 10 buses in a row, have them all accelerate electrically and brake together, be separated by just a few inches, and be operated by just a single lead driver (or computer), isn’t this essentially just a long train?
The benefits would be immense:
- Massive cost savings: with electric buses, you don’t need to lay tracks or have overhead or down-below wiring to power trains. You don’t need substations along the way. The buses would be battery operated (as they already are, through companies like BYD and Proterra), so they could charge in central, convenient places. Sure, that requires charging infrastructure. But it’s much less expensive than wiring an entire route.
- Faster build times: transit agencies could build transit lines much more quickly without all the wiring infrastructure and tracks. Tunneling and overpasses still take time, but transit agencies basically just need to put down pavement and striping. Bus rapid transit lines can be built in about a fifth of the time as rail (and at a fifth of the cost), meaning a city can get a lot more transit, a lot more quickly.
- Operational flexibility: the buses would be free to travel on surface streets as needed, giving transit agencies much more flexibility to move buses around as needed.
And the potential downsides? First is the technological uncertainty, as platooning is still being tested. Second, and related to the first point, is the cost and range of the battery. But as I mentioned, electric buses are already being used now, battery prices are falling dramatically, and energy density is improving. True, the buses have higher upfront costs, but they offer significant and offsetting savings on operations and maintenance. Finally, we’d need more charging infrastructure for the buses, as mentioned. Although again, that infrastructure is proven — and simpler than overhead lines or third rails.
But there’s one additional important point here: the prospect of electric platooning buses should not be used as an excuse to kill or postpone new rail transit proposals in the works today. City residents still need the infrastructure that goes with a separate right-of-way for rail, even if the technology changes. They need tunnels, grade separation, elevated lines, dedicated lanes, and overpasses and underpasses to keep rail out of street traffic. Even if platooning electric buses happen soon, that construction will still be put to good use, albeit with ripped out tracks and overhead lines.
But as transit agencies think about other types of rail upgrade projects, like converting the Orange Line bus rapid transit in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles into light rail, maybe they should take a step back and assess the state of platooning electric bus technology. That Orange Line project in particular is costly, and the dedicated right-of-way already exists to convert to electric bus. If rail construction is underway in 2020 or 2021 just as electric platooning buses are market-proven, it will be a giant waste of money.
So transit advocates should still want rail projects to move forward, and cities will still need dedicated rights-of-way, separate from car traffic. But looming around the corner may be a technology solution that could dramatically reduce costs and construction time for major transit projects. Even for those who will always love steel wheels on rail, it’s got to be hard not to see the appeal.
Maybe some hard-core transit boosters don’t like electric passenger vehicles, but they should sure like battery electric buses. These EV buses cost less over time and don’t spew pollution when they accelerate.
Charged EV magazine interviewed two leaders of the industry, Proterra’s Ryan Popple and ABB’s Daan Nap. I’ve worked a bit with Ryan Popple in the past and am impressed with his understanding of the technology and ambitions for the future. I recommend reading his interview in full. Here’s a key snippet:
I also predict that, for a lot of these huge orders you see for 500 or 800 diesel buses that include long-term options to buy more, those options are not going to get exercised. They’ll probably ship the first third of that order, and then the transit authority board, the city’s mayor, or even the transit staff are going to insist that they don’t exercise the remainder of the options of the contract. This is because the backlash against fossil fuel is really building from an economic perspective. As you run the numbers on how much money they’re going to waste by deploying 500 diesel hybrids instead of EVs, you’re going to have taxpayer watchdogs start to come out of the woodwork and say, “This is crazy!” The reason it’s still happening is because EV tech is still relatively young and we have to prove it out. So we’re currently proving that we’re not equal to diesel, we’re better.
There will also be environmental and social justice pressures. How do you deploy 25 zero-emission buses in one part of the city, and then continue to emit diesel fumes on all the other bus routes? There is a fairness aspect to that. I think that, in time, the neighborhood that is next to the one with EVs will ask, “When are you going to stop making me breathe diesel exhaust? If it’s cheaper to run EVs in the city, when are we going to get them in my neighborhood?”
That’s why we’re starting to see those roadmaps to go all-electric from transit agencies. They want to communicate the plan to the communities that are asking these questions.
He also talks about the need to make EV bus charging standardized and competitive, as opposed to Tesla’s approach of vertically integrating the charging by owning it and making it incompatible with other vehicles. Of course, it’s different for Tesla when their market is largely private consumers. ProTerra, on the other hand, has to please municipal transit managers who don’t want to be held captive to one particular company with a closed-source charging technology.
The bottom line: as transit agencies get more experience operating these buses, and as prices continue to fall while manufacturing increases, the diesel exhaust-spewing bus will quickly become a thing of the past. That’s a development that both the pro-transit and pro-EV communities will both celebrate.
I often feel that hard core transit advocates deep down hate electric vehicles. I’ve heard comments to that effect, that EVs are just a shiny new product to justify avoiding building new urban environments and encouraging people to walk, bike, or take transit. Plus, many transit advocates simply hate cars, for the danger they pose to pedestrians and bikers, the physical distance they put between people and divide communities, and the environmental destruction they cause by enabling sprawl and polluting the skies.
But as someone focused on greenhouse gas reduction, I am a big EV booster. It won’t solve everything, but we need to switch out of petroleum and to bring more investment in battery technologies, which EVs provide. It’s just not realistic to think that everyone can move into an urban, non-automobile environment or that we can entirely retrofit our car-centric built environment in time to avoid climate catastrophe.
So for all the EV haters who love transit, maybe they will love Proterra’s new 180-mile range electric bus:
The extended-range Catalyst XR is available in configurations carrying between 129 kWh and 321 kWh of energy storage, and can be recharged in a little over an hour.
“Operating successfully in cities across the country, the Proterra Catalyst is the most energy-efficient transit bus on the market,” said Proterra VP Matt Horton. “Adding extended-range capabilities to our existing portfolio of fast-charge products enables us to help our customers meet more of their most demanding service requirements. The flexibility of our platform allows our customers to more confidently invest in the future of transit.”
Who wouldn’t love a silent, clean and smooth-accelerating bus in their neighborhood? Plus, those batteries could be repurposed for bulk energy storage, while potentially charging at key times when renewable energy is at surplus. And perhaps most importantly, they pay for themselves pretty quickly through saved fuel costs, leaving more transit funds for other purposes.
This could be a kumbaya moment for EV and transit advocates.