The First Self-Driving Cars May Be ... Buses!

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Proterra buses often go into service in downtown loops, refueling by connecting to overhead fast chargers. (Photo: Proterra).

Oh no, you say, it’s a story about buses; it’s going to be boring. Hold that thought, and if after reading, you still think buses are boring, well then I’ll refund your entire purchase price.

Let’s start with self-driving cars. It’s a good bet that the first ones won’t be cars at all, but buses — buses on dedicated routes called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). One of the people working to make that happen is Ryan Popple (pictured at bottom), a former Tesla guy who now heads Proterra, a fast-growing plug-in bus company based on South Carolina.

Riding the ZeroBus in Louisville
Riding the ZeroBus in Louisville. (Photo: Proterra)

I recently visited Reno, Nevada, where Proterra’s electric buses are running on a downtown loop and fast-recharging by connecting to 480-volt overhead wires. Right after I was there, Reno (which is trying to escape being a one-industry gambling town and concentrate on tech) won the hard-fought competition for Tesla’s Gigafactory.

I talked to Popple this week, and he thinks Reno could be a test city to demonstrate what a zero-emission public transportation fleet is like. In September, the Regional Transportation Commission there announced $16 million in funding for the new Fourth Street/Prater Way RAPID Transit Project, connecting downtown Reno and downtown Sparks. As Popple points out, these BRT corridors — which have no traffic other than the buses — are ideal for early autonomous driving. Check out the corridor in Las Vegas: is that a self-driving candidate?

“You won’t be able to just cruise down a street in Los Angeles, but you could eliminate the driver with rubber-wheeled buses in BRTs,” Popple said. “Think about it, we’re already using driverless trains to get people around airport terminals. We’re definitely exploring that aspect of the technology. If you want to make public transit massively productive, you have to look at labor costs.”

Las Vegas' Strip Express is the kind of Bus Rapid Transit system that could eventually be self-driving.
Las Vegas' Strip Express is the kind of Bus Rapid Transit system that could eventually be self-driving. (Photo: ITDP)

Proterra has world domination in its headlights, but it will have to ramp up production first. American transit agencies order 4,000 to 6,000 buses a year, and in 2014 Proterra delivered about 30 of them, ramping up to 40 or 50 in 2015. It’s aiming for profitability in the second half of 2016, maybe around the same time as Tesla.

This week, Proterra scored a milestone: six of the 10 Federal Transit Administrations grant winners are using the funds to buy the company’s buses — 28 in all, with seven fast-charge stations. Proterra currently has orders for 97 buses from 14 transit agencies, and it could be late 2016 before they’re all filled. Based on advance orders, Proterra could try to build its own gigafactory, but Popple prefers to expand more cautiously.

New Proterra buses are going to Duluth, Dallas and Lexington, Kentucky. Duluth will be a good test of the buses’ cold weather capability, and Popple says the fast-charge system basically means that in the winter, the charge times will go from five minutes to six. Other buses are going to existing customers in Worcester, Massachusetts, Stockton, California, and Louisville, Kentucky. In Worcester deployment, Proterra found that its fast-charge systems need robust heating systems to melt snow and ice.

A Proterra bus in Reno connected to the overhead fast charger.
A Proterra bus in Reno connected to the overhead fast charger. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Buses aren’t cheap, perhaps $800,000 for one of Proterra’s 40-foot transit models. They’re about the same price as natural gas buses, cheaper than diesel hybrids. But it's more than double the cost of a standard diesel bus at $300,000, so subsidies of some kind are essential. The big selling point for electrics is per-mile cost: Diesels are $1 a mile, electrics 20 cents. If you want to save money, you can buy just the bus and lease the batteries. Rapid charging makes range fairly irrelevant, unless — as in one South Carolina route — there’s a lot of long-distance highway driving.

Yes, the price of gas does affect the argument for converting to electric, but not as much as you’d imagine. A bus might be in use for a decade or more, and transit agencies know they’re going to see a lot of diesel price volatility in that period. “They know they can’t trust the oil markets,” Popple said. Natural gas buses have also taken a hit, because the price advantage over gasoline is eroding.

Ryan Popple
Ryan Popple, shown in Reno, dreams of magic buses. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

We’re not going to suddenly put all our diesel buses out to pasture — there’s a lot of money sunk into them. But electric buses make a lot of sense, especially in the downtown corridors of newly invigorated cities (Chattanooga, for instance, has had an electric bus shuttle for years). Costs need to come down, which should happen with new battery developments.

So buses are cool, especially if they’re zero-emission and guided into five-minute fast charging. The only problem may be that you won’t hear them coming.