• Learn about electric buses and how they work
  • Electric bus charging is an important element of the sustainable public transit solution
  • Considering advantages and disadvantages can help you maximize electric bus operations

Global concerns over urban air quality and carbon emissions are prompting public transit to reconsider energy sources. Municipalities looking for potential operational cost savings are also considering electric buses. 

But what is an electric bus, and how does it work? This guide will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of electric buses, and provide more insights into sustainable public transport.

What is an electrical bus?

An electric bus is a passenger transit vehicle powered by an electric motor. Instead of an internal combustion engine, electric buses store the electricity needed to power the vehicle in a battery. As a result, an electric bus is also called a battery-electric bus (BEB). The electric motor serves as both the engine and transmission.

The electric bus is popular in China, where 17% of the country’s total fleet was a BEB in 2019. While there were 421,000 buses on the road in mainland China, there were only 300 in the U.S. and 2,250 in Europe.

How do electric buses work?

A signal is sent to the powertrain system controller upon starting the bus. That signal powers up the high-voltage battery and converts it into electrical energy, which powers the electric motor and thermal management system.

The battery is effectively the fuel tank of the electric bus. So, the size of the battery correlates to how far the bus can go without recharging. 

How the bus is used also factors into the battery charge, known as its duty cycle. You might think of a duty cycle this way:

  • A light-duty cycle is taking a leisurely walk along a paved, flat path.
  • A medium-duty cycle is taking a more hilly path while pushing an infant in a stroller and pulling a dog along.
  • A heavy-duty cycle is running with a double stroller and holding two kindergarteners up a steep incline, against the wind.

A light-duty cycle will burn a lot less energy than a heavy-duty cycle.

Along with your speed, weight transported, and road conditions, other factors can impact the duty cycle of electric buses. Factors include driving and weather conditions, the number of stops and starts, elevation changes, how quickly the bus accelerates, and more.

How fast can an electrical bus go?

Most electric buses are operated in urban environments. They don’t need to go at highway speed. They can reach 40 to 45 mph but will average lower speeds. The higher the speed, the shorter the range.

How long does charging an electric bus take?

The time it takes for an electric bus to fully charge depends on the type of charger.

There are two main types of electric bus chargers: plug-in chargers and pantograph chargers. 

A plug-in charger can charge an electric bus in two to eight hours. The charger can be either direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC). AC chargers are slower but more affordable, while DC chargers can charge batteries up to 150 KW.

A pantograph charger is more powerful. The buses drive underneath the robotic arm of a pantograph charger, which attaches to the electrical conductors on top of the vehicle for a quick charge. These types of stations may be found on a bus’s route to enable electric bus charging without the driver having to return to the lot.

Pantograph chargers carry more current for faster charging. They use DC that can charge up to 350 KW. 

How much does an electric bus charging station cost?

The cost of an electric bus charging station depends on the type of charge used. A DC charger is more expensive, as the voltage is higher and more volatile. 

According to one estimate, plug-in chargers can cost between $2,000 and $5,000 for the equipment, and $1,000 to over $10,000 for installation, depending on the complexity. Meanwhile, DC fast chargers are more expensive at around $10,000 to $15,000 for more basic equipment, and more than $40,000 for larger, more powerful stations. They also require a three-phase power supply, so installation costs are typically higher as well — ranging from $4,000 to $15,000 on the lower end to over $50,000 for larger, more complex projects.

Keep in mind that one charger can service six to eight buses per hour, depending on route scheduling.

Advantages of electric buses

The many advantages of electric buses help explain their growing popularity. Let’s look at some of the main ones in greater detail.

Environmental benefits

Electric vehicles are more energy efficient and have zero carbon emissions. This not only helps public health but can reduce the risk of global warming.

Lower operation and maintenance costs

Electric buses don’t need to gas up. The battery is their fuel. And without the internal combustion engine or diesel fuel, you can expect lower maintenance costs. The useful lifespan of an electric bus is around 12 years, per manufacturer Gregory Poole.

Smoother, quieter ride

If you’re at a NASCAR event, you’re expecting to hear the roar of the engine. However, passenger transit riders don’t need to hear that gas-guzzling engine’s roar. Instead, they can enjoy a quieter, zippier ride around the city while commuting to work or getting to school.

Regenerative braking

When drivers apply the brakes on an electric bus, they give the battery more juice. The bus is designed to capture that kinetic energy and put it back into the battery. This helps the bus to run more efficiently and lowers wear on the braking system.

No overhead wires

Electric trolleys, which you may have seen in Zurich in Switzerland, or San Francisco in the United States, or Toronto in Canada, get their power from the overhead wires. Electric buses, on the other hand, store the electricity needed in batteries.

Still, there are disadvantages of electric buses. We address these concerns next.

Disadvantages of electric buses

We’ve discussed the advantages of electric buses, but there are some disadvantages to consider too. As technology advances, expect manufacturers to continue to address these issues.

Higher purchase price

Since the technology is still new and only a few electric bus manufacturers exist, the prices are higher. Additionally, you’ll need to factor in the price of the electric charging stations.

Charging time

It doesn’t take long to fill up a diesel fuel tank, but it can take hours to charge an electric bus. A fast charge electric bus may be able to restore an hour’s worth of energy usage within 10 minutes. However, that battery will have a diminished operation range.

Limited range

Electric buses can only go so far before they need to recharge. Mass Transit defines an Extended Range Battery-Electric Bus as one that can operate for over 80 miles before it needs to recharge.

Unlike diesel buses, electric buses need to use an electric charging station to recharge, which can be more inconvenient to find compared to a diesel gas station.

Weather/road conditions can impact buses

Electric buses can be challenged by extreme weather conditions or hilly routes. Bloomberg reported the Minnesota Valley Transportation Authority (MVTA) had difficulties with electric buses maintaining a full day’s charge in the cold of winter.

Electric buses vs. diesel buses

As already discussed, when comparing electric buses to diesel buses, the cost is a big factor. The electric bus is more expensive upfront, although there are many manufacturer incentive programs. You’ll save money over the life of the electric bus, as you can enjoy lower fuel costs and maintenance costs.

With diesel buses, you don’t have to worry about range or about the road and weather conditions.

Top electric bus companies

Verified Market Research predicts positive growth in the global electric bus market in the near future. Having valued the market at USD 102.71 thousand in 2018, VMR projected the market will reach USD 686.31 thousand by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 26.8% from 2019 to 2026.

VMR identified the following electric bus companies as top players:

  • Volvo Group
  • BYD
  • VDP Group
  • Proterra

How Motive can help maximize your electric bus operation

Electric buses can help you realize cost savings and contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment. Fleet management software can help you make the most of your electric bus operations.

Sustainability is one of the reasons to adopt electric buses. Motive supports sustainable logistics with features that:

Motive’s fleet management solution also improves fleet safety by helping you recognize accident risk factors such as:

Motive offers total visibility into every aspect of your fleet management. Join over 120,000 businesses that trust Motive to improve the sustainability, safety, and profitability of their fleets. Request a demo today.