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Who will dominate the electric bus future?

Who will dominate the electric bus future? Daimlet hall at Hanover show.

While Busworld at Kortrijk might be the bus and coach industry’s premier international event, the IAA show at Hanover in the alternate years is often a better guide as to the direction of travel in terms of technologies. Yes, there are many more launches which have real resonance for bus and coach operators at the Kortrijk show - which is itself moving to Brussels after 2017 - but the fact that there is so much cross-fertilisation with the rest of the commercial vehicle sector and the wider automotive industry in Hanover gives the German show a different edge.

This year’s IAA demonstrated, without any doubt, that the future is electric. And perhaps not just pigeon-holed for inner-urban operations as the pace of technological development means we will see applications for inter-urban and long-distance transport as well.

There were of course many more concept vehicles than production electric buses at Hanover but we are certainly on the cusp of great change and by the time we get to 2020, there is a promise of series production of electric buses from a number of leading brands, including Daimler, Volvo and MAN. 

“We are about to see more changes in terms of vehicle design in the next 10 years than we saw in the past 125 years,” was one of the key points that emerged from Daimler’s eve-of-show media presentation which incorporated robot delivery modules and flying drones alongside electric vans, trucks and the previously-launched autonomous FutureBus concept vehicle.

Hanover is of course dominated by the big European OEMs and one of the major challenges they face is whether the current lead that the Chinese manufacturers have in the electric stakes will mean that the whole world order will be turned upside down, or whether the existing European-based leaders will be able to maintain their position in the inevitable transition to electric.

“By 2030, 70 per cent of city buses will be electric,” was the bold claim from head of Daimler Buses Hartmut Schick, confirming the 2020 date for the availability of series production electric buses.

And Volvo Buses president Håkan Agnevall also agrees that electric vehicles will become a major feature in public transport. 

Discussing this theme with Gustav Tuschen, head of product engineering, Daimler Buses, it is clear that the transition to electric may require OEMs to work with new suppliers and develop new partnerships, but he seems equally clear that the solution that emerges for a bus with a three-pointed star on the front will be driven by technology that is controlled by Daimler. For instance, the battery solution is not likely to be a complete unit shipped in from elsewhere; it is more likely to be an in-house modular system that can integrate components from suppliers but the intellectual property rights need to be retained by the OEM.

Volvo’s Agnevall has a similar perspective. Volvo has been pioneering hybrid and electric technology for some time and taken some brave decisions to eschew other alternative fuel options and place most of its bets on an electric future. 

Agnevall sees the current market in terms of three types of electric producers; the start-ups who are very effective at quickly getting to market with imported electric drive systems; the mid-size vehicle integrators such as perhaps Solaris and VDL; and the large OEMs such as Volvo itself which unsurprisingly, he sees as leading the electric bandwagon.

“We are already extremely good at diesel,” says Agnevall. “And we will also be extremely good at electric.”

One of the key issues for electric vehicles is of course the accompanying charging infrastructure which is required to keep the vehicles running for a full day’s service. Volvo is pioneering its City Mobility strategy which aims to look at the whole system required to support electric vehicles including the electricity suppliers and producers of hardware. It has also committed to an open system for roadside charging, along with a number of other manufacturers to ensure that there aren’t proprietary barriers erected to prevent the effective rollout of such systems.

Of course what the European manufacturers are really concerned about is that the Chinese manufacturers could utilise the enormous scale they have in their home markets, to dominate the electric future worldwide, effectively leapfrogging the European competitors who built their business empires on a century of oil-powered engines. 

BYD is clearly one of the early leaders in electric vehicles and after launching its electric double-deck bus at last year’s Kortrijk in response to a challenge from the then London mayor Boris Johnson, went one further in Hanover with an electric sightseeing coach which was developed in response to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ambition to electrify the city’s transport.

The coach on display in Hanover was one of the first for an order for 15 for two sightseeing operators, BE Green and Nedroma, in the French capital and boasts an effective range of between 140 and 200km (depending on air-conditioning use) with a three-hour re-charge.

The electric coach carries up to 51 seated passengers. The batteries are located on the roof and underneath but there is still 4cu m of luggage space.

I am told that TfL’s Leon Daniels spent some time on the BYD coach at the Hanover stand; London coach operators should be prepared for an electric future.

MAN meanwhile showed a concept electric artic Lion’s City which is designed to demonstrate the various different types of charging system including overnight and roadside opportunity charging. 

By 2018, MAN says its e-mobility roadmap will offer a pre-series battery electric bus, followed by series production of a 100 per cent electric city bus before 2020. By 2030, MAN Truck & Bus says it aims to have 50 per cent of its sales in the city bus segment consisting of emission-free vehicles.

MAN also unveiled its new Tourliner at Hanover. Perhaps more of an extended facelift than an entirely new coach, nonetheless the Tourliner has now morphed closer to other Neoplan models such as the Cityliner in terms of looks, and sports LED headlights and daytime running lights, level floor and ‘floating’ luggage racks. Powered by a D26 engine, the new Tourliner promises increased performance and torque, and an optimised driveline that should improve fuel savings by up to 10 per cent. The UK right-hand drive version will arrive next year with the first models likely to be at the UK Coach Rally in May.