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Enabling the transition to a greener transport future

Enabling the transition to a greener transport future

The fact that visitors to Euro Bus Expo in Birmingham last month might have been somewhat spoiled for choice when it comes to electric drive options is an indication of how the market is still very much in its infancy. There is little consensus among the manufacturers about how to deliver the optimum electric bus experience. 

Steve Rooney reports.

Charging systems are one area of contention, with divergent views about whether to load a bus with enough batteries to charge overnight for a full day’s operation, or to use fewer batteries and use ‘opportunity charging’ points along or at the end of a route to keep the powerpack topped up.

This is all in the context of a heightened concern about air quality, of course, and greenhouse gas emissions, although the latter is unfortunately still not taken as seriously as it should be, partly because too many people listen to the noisy climate change-deniers rather than the sage advice of experts including Professor Stephen Hawking. 

For the past couple of decades we have witnessed successive iterations of the Euro standard which has driven down the tailpipe emissions of NOx and particulates. But we now know that this is not enough. 

Yes, today’s diesel engines are much cleaner. Indeed, Wright Group CEO Mark Nodder has suggested that the industry missed a trick in not re-branding Euro 6 as something special rather than just diesel, to highlight its much cleaner combustion.

However there are problems with continuing to back the diesel horse. There are still large numbers of older Euro standard vehicles in the current fleet and very little support for the kind of incentive programme that is going to change that anytime soon, and the diesel being used is still largely derived from a fossil fuel and therefore doesn’t get us any nearer to the low carbon future that is clearly a necessity.

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But more importantly perhaps, in the wake of the VW emissions scandal, people don’t believe the numbers any more. Test bed data, and even test track data in the case of buses, doesn’t transfer to real-world emissions. It is true that the latest Euro 6 standards include OBD (On Board Diagnostics) which should be capable of monitoring emissions in use and indeed manufacturers will be required to certify that they are within defined limits. But these will be averaged across fleets and over vastly different terrains and are unlikely to provide any comfort to parents taking their children to a primary school on a busy urban street.

Pollution at the point of use has become the critical factor. Yes, well-to-wheel calculations are vital in terms of tackling greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on climate change, but local air pollution has become Public Enemy Number One.

So, the answer is electric then? Maybe. Hydrogen fuel cells could also be a response, if they can be produced at a commercial cost. And gas could play a part, providing it lives up to its promise in terms of real-world emissions; but it will require the development of local biogas production, close enough to the fleet it is powering, to ensure complete transparency in terms of its low carbon credentials.

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But the new technology that is taking up the lion’s share of manufacturer’s R&D budgets is electric drive systems. As outlined above, it is still early days and we run the risk of trying to run before we can walk; trying to launch large numbers of vehicles into operation with little time to gather evidence to prove their likely suitability, in-service performance or longevity.

It is notable that a number of public authorities are well ahead of the curve already. London mayor Sadiq Khan was elected on a manifesto which put air quality as one of his top two priorities alongside housing – and well above any of his other campaign commitments. And York city council has been forced to retreat somewhat from its original intention of having an ultra low emission bus fleet for its high profile park-and-ride contracts, having conceded that operators were disinclined to respond to its tender request as they don’t yet have sufficient confidence in electric vehicles to be locked into providing them to meet the original contract terms. York’s councillors should be congratulated for trying to push the boundaries - and also for acknowledging that they may be going faster than the operators can realistically manage - although it is a clear case where public funding should be available to enable the local authority to support electrification of such a high-profile park-and-ride network.

And this month we have also seen four major world cities – Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris – declare an ambition to ban diesel vehicles from their centres altogether by 2025. 

While it is too early to write diesel’s obituary, its future role in urban transport is evidently time-limited.

Bus operators need to be at the vanguard when it comes to driving forward new less-polluting technologies and there are good examples of some who are already on the pathway. Of course, while the industry can play a role it can’t afford to adopt non-commercial solutions or leap into the unknown with technology that is still to be proven and there is a strong case for continued public funding to ensure the best technologies are identified quickly and moved into volume production as soon as possible.

Ministers might point to the funds already made available for low carbon solutions, but honestly, £30million over three years for green buses is a paltry sum. Yes, government funding is on a tight squeeze, but these are political decisions at the end of the day; allocate just a fraction of the vast sums being thrown at the HS2 project and you could revolutionise the urban bus across the UK.

This year’s Euro Bus Expo was a great showcase of the innovation that is being led by our indigenous manufacturers alongside continental European and Chinese firms. And next year’s Busworld Kortrijk is likely to be even more of an electric bus-fest.

But there needs to be a much greater sense of urgency and reality from public bodies to help us all make the transition smoother and faster.