Charting electric futures in Hannover

Daimler refuses to be rushed in developing its electric bus offering. The eCitaro is almost ready, however, with series production beginning next year for left-hand drive and a right-hand drive demonstrator promised for next autumn, followed by deliveries to UK operators in 2020.

It is clear from Daimler’s presentations at the IAA Hannover show that it is being stung a little by criticism that it is taking too long to challenge the current Chinese domination of the electric vehicle market.

But Daimler is defiantly proud of its heritage and defends its approach to move forward at its own pace.

“We are told we are too slow, which we reject,” says Daimler board member and head of trucks and buses divisions Martin Daum. “We need to be sure of what we do to make in production quantities. When we come to market, things need to be safe and to work.”

At the Hannover show, Daimnler announced a key alliance across the Atlantic with a strategic investment in Proterra which is seen as a leader in the market for battery electric buses in North America. Daimler has backed the California-based electric bus manufacturer as part of a $155million funding round which it led alongside Tao Capital Partners.

In Europe, Daimler already has orders in the bank for its eCitaro which it will start to deliver next year and it is confident that its roadmap to enhancing efficiency and output will enable electric buses to gradually provide a viable alternative for virtually all urban bus applications.

The initial eCitaro offering has 243kWh capacity, but Daimler is alreading committing to taking this to 330kWh in the next generation which it says will be able to address around 50 per cent of typical bus routes. By 2020, it aims to offer an option of solid-state batteries, taking capacity up to 400kWh, covering around 70 per cent of bus routes, according to Daimler, with a subsequent fuel cell range extender by around 2022 adding the final part of the jigsaw to fulfill nearly 100 per cent of all requirements of city buses.

Daimler Bus head of product engineering Gustav Tuschen asserts that the driving performance of the eCitaro is very positive, with rapid, smooth acceleration from the electric drivetrain with little impact from either a light or heavy load in terms of passenger capacity.

Tuschen also points out that the service brake is rarely needed by the driver in normal use, with a hand-operated lever controlling the regenerative braking providing sufficient capacity to halt smoothly in traffic and at bus stops.

The efficiency can also be enhanced by maximising use of a coasting function; accelerating up to 50 or 70kmh and then using the vehicle’s kinetic energy to coast for some distance on level ground.

Evobus UK’s director Mercedes-Benz sales.  Marcus Watts is looking forward to the electric option giving the Citaro a boost in the UK, including potentially revitalising an 18m artic option.

Watts reports that the aim is to ensure that the eCitaro is neutral as far as an operator’s total cost of ownership is concerned, compared to the current diesel variant. The additional capital costs should be offset by significantly reduced fuel costs and lower servicing spend, according to Watts.

This TCO calculation includes the cost of replacing the batteries at around 7-8 years, and Daimler believes that there will be a resale value in the battery for second life use at the end of the vehicle’s life which may provide an additional return for the operator.

Watt anticipates that the introduction of electric vehicles will hasten the switch to leasing options, or at least leasing the battery, and more outsourcing of maintenance by operators.

When the eCitaro becomes available in the UK from 2020, it will enter an electric bus market that is dominated by BYD, and quite likely Yutong drivetrains.

While there are always some sceptics who think they can’t depend on Chinese buses, this is an argument that doesn’t really hold much water; just consider where the high-tech smartphone in your pocket was made, along with a huge range of consumer goods in your home.

Of course, back-up is vital when it comes to bus and coach operation and new entrants need to invest heavily in aftermarket facilities to ensure they can be relied upon.

But it is undeniable that the current leader in the electric vehicle revolution is China, forged by fulfilling huge domestic demand alongside aggressive export campaigns, much the same as has happened in other areas of new technology, such as solar.

BYD has gone a step further with its canny partnership with ADL. The first batch of BYD electric buses in London were not really fit for purpose in terms of body design and finish, but it learned very quickly and, to date, the BYD-ADL partnership is way ahead in the electric bus order table.

BYD Europe managing director Isbrand Ho is also determined to stay ahead across the continent. “We were first to market,” says Ho. “We aim to stay in pole position even in the face of intensifying competition”.

Ho recognises of course that this renewed competition comes from those who have dominated the commercial vehicle market for a long time, including Daimler and MAN. The latter is also belatedly showing signs of catch-up on electric vehicles, although so far there is a lack of clarity about how the newly-named Traton Group will harmonise its future technology offering and maximise its MAN and Scania markets.

BYD’s Ho appears sceptical of some of those who are trying to catch him up. “Everyone is suddenly becoming a battery expert,” he quipped at the company’s IAA press conference, also describing solid state batteries as a bit of a “red herring” given their likely cost.

But you don’t sell 50,000 of a bus model without knowing how to get it right for many markets, and Daimler will certainly be a force to reckoned with with its electric version of the best-selling Citaro. Although it might be late off the starting blocks, this is not a sprint race; we are still some way off the electric bus taking the lion’s share of future orders, and few would seriously bet against Daimler being a strong player once that market begins to mature.