Management & Operations

Taken for a ride

Posted on August 1, 2005 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

“Do you still drive that old Honda Civic?” I get that question more often than I’d like, probably because I’ve been driving the Civic for nearly 14 years. It’s growing old gracefully, acquiring age-appropriate wrinkles and making unaccountably strange noises under the hood, like its owner. I’ve thought about yielding to pressure from status-conscious friends and buying a new car, but I can’t find a good reason to do so. Having said that, when I get a chance to drive a newer vehicle, I almost never turn it down. So when offered the opportunity to drive a new hydrogen fuel-cell bus that will shortly be put into operation by AC Transit in Oakland, Calif., I couldn’t say no. Not quite a beginner
I’ve driven a 40-foot bus before, by the way. No, I don’t have my CDL, but I was invited to compete in the “celebrity” category of a bus roadeo sponsored by Torrance (Calif.) Transit last year. The course was laid out with a series of cones that had to be slalomed, a curb that had to be sidled up to for a “passenger pick-up” and an emergency braking event that risked the life and limb of all aboard. The first competitor flattened several of the cones during her run, putting her out of the running immediately. The next contestant, the mayor of Torrance, took great pains to avoid the cones, even putting the bus in reverse a few times, and managed to post a respectable score. A couple of others did well, too, putting pressure on the final competitor — me. Fortunately, I was coached through the course by an extremely helpful Torrance Transit bus operator. It was a great advantage, I’m sure. You can imagine how awful I felt when his young son was thrown into a stanchion during the emergency braking event. The youngster bruised his chin and was crying lustily as he left the bus. My wife, two sons and two of their cousins were also on the bus and blamed me for the boy’s injuries. “Why did you have to brake so hard?” they asked. Because it was part of the event, I said. “That’s not a good reason. Didn’t you see that boy who got hurt?” Their complaints tarnished only slightly the fact that I won the competition and have an impressive trophy in my office that was presented to me by Tom Whittle, the general manager of Torrance Transit who passed away earlier this year. It’s a treasured possession. The $3 million question
But, I digress. Let’s get back to the fuel-cell bus, which is the antithesis of my 1992 Honda Civic. First, it’s new. Second, it cost $3 million. Third, it’s 40 feet long and runs on hydrogen and electricity. To show off the new bus, the folks at ABC Companies arranged for a media ride-and-drive event during the recent APTA meeting in Dallas. The hybrid-electric fuel-cell vehicle, which is the product of the collaborative efforts of Van Hool, ISE Corp. and UTC Power, is impressive. It doesn’t rumble like most diesel buses. Rather, the highway noise is more like a high-pitched hum. Different, but definitely better. Getting behind the wheel was a little stressful, even though we were only driving it around the parking lot of an elementary school. Rick Fernandez, general manager of AC Transit, provided us with guidance as we put the bus through its paces. “Slow down” was his advice to me as I swung the bus into the first turn. “Slow down” was his advice as I took the second turn. I think you can guess his advice for the third turn. He seemed relieved when my turn was over. I guess he didn’t realize that he was coaching the 2004 City Slickers champion of the 7th Annual Bus Roadeo at Torrance Transit.

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