It has been over three years since the first battery-electric bus was deployed on Long Beach streets. Long Beach Transit (LBT) received the first of its initial order of 10 buses from Chinese automotive manufacturer BYD in March 2016, adding the remaining vehicles to the agency’s free Passport route later that year. This month, LBT’s board of directors voted to exercise the agency’s option to purchase an additional 14 buses from the company.

Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification Portal
The Passport route, where Long Beach’s first fleet of electric buses premiered, features a Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification (WAVE) port set in the pavement, allowing buses to up their charge without docking, if necessary. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

On November 7, the board voted to order the additional buses at a price point just above $1 million per vehicle. According to LBT President and CEO Kenneth McDonald, the new buses will finally enable the agency to begin electrifying additional routes, an objective LBT had been pursuing ever since the first bus arrived in Long Beach.

Initially, the transit agency planned to deploy six of the first 10 buses on the Passport route, a free service that connects Downtown Long Beach and the Queen Mary, and the remaining four on other routes. But, once the first few buses were rolled out, their average range was 80 miles, according to LBT spokesperson Michael Gold, far below the 150-mile range guaranteed by the manufacturer, making them unsuited for the agency’s longer routes.

Since then, LBT and the manufacturer, BYD, have worked together to improve the performance of the buses, according to McDonald. Over the past year, BYD replaced the fleet’s batteries, improving their range to meet the minimum of 125 miles required for service on most of the agency’s routes. The new liquid-cooled batteries have delivered the necessary range improvement, setting the stage for a larger deployment of electric buses across LBT’s network of routes, McDonald said.

The technology that powers electric buses is still under development, and it’s not uncommon for transit agencies and manufacturers to work out issues in the first years of their contracts, Matthew Casale, director of 21st Century Transportation Campaign at U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), told the Business Journal. Casale is one of the authors of a report on electronic bus programs across the country, which was published by the U.S. PIRG nonprofit conglomerate, Environment America and the Frontier Group, last month.

“Now that the technology is better known and is starting to take off, more and more people are looking at this,” Casale said. “The one thing everyone wants to know is: how does it work for us?” In a series of case studies, the research group considered challenges and successes experienced by different agencies that have incorporated electric buses into their fleets in recent years.

In most cases, electric buses were found to have performed well in the studied pilot programs. “[Electric buses] have often been cheaper to fuel and maintain than their diesel counterparts,” the report stated. “But early adopters have experienced a set of technological and economic hurdles that future electric bus programs will need to overcome.” Battery life and range have presented challenges in some cities and high prices for electricity have led to limited financial benefits in others.

“That’s why it’s important to do a pilot program,” Casale noted. “Each agency, for its electric bus program, should set specific goals on the kinds of emissions reduction benefits, public health benefits and financial benefits they want to get out of their electric bus program and then measure the success based on that.”

According to Gold, LBT’s main goal is to have a fleet that is completely comprised of alternatively fueled vehicles by the end of next year and to eventually reach zero emissions. “We should reach our goal of eliminating all diesel buses by the end of 2020, meaning the entire fleet will be alternatively fueled,” Gold told the Business Journal.

The only agency studied by the PIRG-led research group that was found to have a decisively negative experience was ABQ RIDE, which is run by the City of Albuquerque Department of Transportation. The agency serving New Mexico’s largest city ordered 18 buses from BYD, which were produced at the company’s factory in Lancaster, California.

Once deployed in 2018, the new fleet was plagued by “serious durability and safety issues,” according to local media reports quoted by Casale and his co-author, including doors that opened unexpectedly, air conditioning outages, mal-functioning brakes, faulty electrical wiring, inferior welding of frames, battery cages cracking and separating, unmarked high-voltage contacts, exposed wires and overheating batteries that the transit network said posed a serious fire risk. Additionally, the buses performed far below the range promised by the manufacturer, the report noted.

Albuquerque was also the only city included in the report that purchased buses from BYD and other cities have reported similar issues with the company’s buses. BYD’s battery-electric buses have proven sensitive to the extreme heat of the New Mexico summer and the extreme cold of the Indianapolis winter. But even in temperate Los Angeles, the buses have struggled with some of the issues experienced by other transit agencies across the country, a 2018 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found.

The 18 buses BYD sent to Albuquerque were eventually returned and the city’s electric bus pilot put on ice. “You can’t really deny that there were issues in the relationship between the manufacturer and the [City of Albuquerque], and there were expectations from the city that weren’t met by the manufacturer,” Casale said. “But I think there are larger issues and more important lessons to be learned from that case study, and part of it is about the way you develop that relationship with the manufacturer, whatever manufacturer it is.”

Cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach have worked with the manufacturer to address challenges identified in their pilot programs. Despite initial performance issues, BYD recently announced its largest-ever U.S. order of 130 buses, placed by the City of Los Angeles.

“It seems like they’ve done a good job of addressing the issues and figuring out how to make it work, together with the transit agencies,” Casale noted. “Whether you’re working with BYD or you’re working with any of the other manufacturers, you just want to build protections into the contract, to make sure that you’re actually getting the technology that you think you’re getting.” In Long Beach, battery replacements undertaken by BYD to improve the range of buses to 135 miles were covered by the company’s warranty, according to McDonald.

Over the past month, LBT has tested the performance of BYD’s buses on one of its regular routes, the 45/46 between the Lower West Side and Park Estates. The results have been reassuring, said McDonald, prompting him to suggest the agency exercise its option to purchase the additional 14 vehicles. Soon, BYD’s buses are expected to be deployed on several routes in the agency’s network. “That is the intent,” McDonald said. “That’s why we started [the pilot].”

The report compiled by U.S. PIRG, Environment America and the Frontier Group noted that scaling up electric bus programs quickly following their pilot phase is key to their success. “The larger the fleet, the greater the potential economies of scale, and the greater the opportunity to demonstrate the vehicles’ functionality and desirability,” the report stated.

Despite some technological and financial hurdles, electric buses remain an important tool in the effort toward zero public transit emissions, Casale noted. “The potential public health and environmental benefits of electric buses far outweigh those challenges,” he said. “Whatever challenges there are with electric buses, we can overcome them.”