“Everything that has an urban drive cycle will ultimately be an electric vehicle.” That’s what Ryan Popple, the president and CEO of Proterra, the leading U.S. electric bus company, explained to me in a recent interview.
The future of transit isn’t cleaner diesel, hybrids, natural gas, or hydrogen fuel-cell buses, argues Popple. The rapidly dropping price for electric batteries combined with new fast-charging technology appears to render the competition obsolete. Right now, the biggest question isn’t which technology will win in the bus market — it’s how quickly all-electrics will take over, and whether Proterra can keep ahead of the Chinese competition, like electric vehicle giant BYD.
Popple is focused on electrifying the transit market, which he expects “will be 100 percent electric” in a decade or so. If Popple’s vision for electrifying buses sounds as ambitious as Elon Musk’s is for cars, perhaps that’s because he was an early employee of Tesla and served as Senior Director of Finance at the company. Like Tesla, Proterra is not putting new batteries into an old vehicle design. It has redesigned the bus from the ground up to optimize it for an all-electric drive with fast-charging capabilities.
As a finance guy, Popple makes clear that the numbers no longer add up for the competition. For instance, Proterra had actually built and sold four hydrogen fuel-cell buses before battery prices plummeted. Now he tells me, “The reason we don’t market a hydrogen fuel-cell bus for customers is that it’s a really bad decision for them.”
Popple explained that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are a “technology looking for a problem.” I’ve been making that case for over a decade, but the exponentially-growing success of electric vehicles now simply leaves no significant room (or rationale) in the marketplace for hydrogen vehicles, big or small. I will do a separate post on that subject soon.
Proterra’s 40-foot electric buses have fuel efficiency equivalent to 22 miles per gallon, giving them one-fifth to one-fourth of the per-mile fueling cost of regular diesels, hybrids, and natural gas buses. And they have much lower maintenance costs. So over the 10- to 12-year lifetime of a typical urban transport bus, the Proterra can save $400,000 in total operational costs compared to a typical diesel.