What We’ve Learned From our Electric Bus Pilot So Far

Jan 27, 2020

A curtain dropped and the cameras flashed. For a day, a bus was the star. The months since have been less glamorous but far more important.

Last April, we publically introduced our first zero-emission battery-electric bus, powered by 100% clean wind energy from Portland General Electric. Since then, we’ve been putting the buses – now numbering five — to a test on Line 62-Murray Blvd in Beaverton.

It’s a challenging, 26-mile route with 700 feet of elevation change and nearly 14,000 rides per week. It serves stops on some of Washington County’s notoriously congested roads, between Sunset Transit Center and Washington Square Transit Center.

The route is ideal for the real-world trial we wanted, before committing millions of dollars on electric bus acquisition and rolling the buses out for wider service. Now that we have more than nine months of data, we wanted to share how the buses are doing.

First some background.

The New Flyer XCELSIOR™ zero-emission battery-electric bus – which is what our first five electric buses are — didn’t exist when we started this project three years ago. Our first one was a true pilot.

We brought PGE on board too. They provided the charging infrastructure, including the overhead charger you might have seen at Sunset Transit Center. When it was built, the charger was the most powerful of its kind in North America. PGE also installed half a dozen, smaller chargers at our Merlo Operating Facility, where the buses plug in overnight.

So how is everything going?

As with all new technology, lessons learned lead to updates and retrofits, and that’s no different with these buses. Electric buses are complex machines with many different systems, all controlled by software. And, just like your smartphone, there are updates to install, bugs to fix and optimizations to implement. While a bug on your phone will just cause an app to restart, software glitches with our buses require support and testing before we can clear the bus to be put back into service.

At this point, these buses are spending more time in the shop than we would like. For example, in early December, we parked all five due to a design flaw with the electrical connectors on the roof of the bus. We’ve since worked with New Flyer to re-engineer that component so the buses will charge properly. 

These types of issues are not unique to us.

While there are challenges, the up side is how much we are learning. Up until a few years ago, all of our operators, maintenance teams, managers and supervisors had been dedicated to diesel. Now they’re pioneers in electric bus technology.

About 200 of our roughly 1,400 bus operators have been trained to drive an electric bus, and the reviews are pretty positive. They say it feels like you’re driving a golf cart! The buses are quiet, have smooth acceleration and no diesel fumes.

Although our test hasn’t been without challenges, we remain committed to a reliable, non-diesel, zero-emission future. We know we’ll get there, but it will take time.

With two more grants from the Federal Transit Administration, we’ve placed an order for five more electric buses, with plans to add three more. We’ll kick the tires on different brands until we find the right fit for our fleet. It’s important for our future and yours, that we get this right.

Tia York

Tia York

Public Information Officer

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