In a relay race, the passing of the baton is critical to the success of the team. If an awaiting runner takes off too soon, he could reach the end of the passing lane before receiving the baton. If he takes off too late, he won’t reach the optimum speed before taking the baton. Often, the victory goes not to the swiftest team, but to the team that passes the baton most efficiently.
Whether it’s apparent or not, the transit industry is smack in the middle of its own relay race, with much more at stake than a gold medal. The runners are the nation’s transit bus fleets and the baton is the fuel. I’d say we’re still midway through the second leg. We’ve made the transition from loud, soot-spewing diesel engines to quieter, cleaner-burning, computer-controlled diesel engines. We’ve also brought natural-gas engines, such as CNG and LNG, into the mix. But there’s still a long way to go.
With new EPA emissions standards coming into play in 2007 and 2010, we’re almost ready to pass the baton to the next generation of cleaner-burning diesel engines that will significantly ratchet down emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. It will take at least 15 years, however, before the majority of transit systems will have replaced their existing fleet with ’07 and ’10 vehicles.
So, if you do the math, we’re looking at the year 2025 before the nation’s transit bus fleet is powered by what will be the cleanest-burning engines.
Entering the hybrid era?
In the meantime, however, we’re also seeing increasing interest in hybrid diesel-electric and gasoline-electric buses that bring emissions down even further. These hybrids, I think, are the link to the next exchange of the baton. With lower emissions and better fuel economy than their traditional diesel counterparts, hybrids will take us into the next passing lane.
And the success of the next baton pass will hinge on the federal government’s ability to incentivize the move toward further development of hybrid propulsion’s potential and its commercial viability.
Speaking at the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle Conference in San Diego, Walt Kulyk, director of mobility innovation for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), said the agency will provide $49 million to transit systems that want to procure hybrid buses. The funds will cover the difference in cost between a hybrid bus and a standard diesel bus, which at present is approximately $200,000.
With this financial support, Kulyk said he expects 25% to 30% of new bus orders will have hybrid electric propulsion systems. This will be aided by a shrinking cost difference between conventional and hybrid buses as manufacturing increases.
If hybrid technology becomes the norm in the transit industry, we can expect that it will carry us through until the next baton is passed, in another decade or so.
Planning for a fuel-cell future
Assuming that we will be forced to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the most likely successor to hybrid diesel-electric propulsion will be fuel-cell technology. This will be a momentous shift. It’s already started in Europe, where some transit buses use fuel-cell technology.
Here in the U.S., we’ve got a few of our own fuel-cell buses in operation. At AC Transit in Oakland, Calif., the agency is operating three fuel-cell hybrid-electric buses. Early results are promising. Having ridden in one of these Van Hool buses, I can tell you that they’re quiet, smooth and able to generate freeway speeds — all with zero emissions.
The timing is right for transit systems to get behind the development of fuel-cell technology by offering to partner with the FTA and advanced technology non-profit organizations in demonstration projects. If we start running now, in 10 or 20 years, we’ll be in great position to accept the next baton.