In The News

Bus Electrification: A conversation with Michael McDonald, Ph. D.

By Krystal Mohan, the Road Explorer magazine

Describe your affiliation to the motor coach industry.

I’m the operations manager of the Vehicle Innovation Center. We actually just recently re-branded to the NFI Vehicle Innovation Center which encapsulates all the companies that are within the NFI family, so that includes MCI, New Flyer industries for our transit bus business and numerous other subsidiaries. We really stand out as being a center of excellence for the technology and the advancements in coach technology.

When I began with the company back in 2017, my role was a sustainable transportation specialist and back then we didn’t have any electric coaches. It was part of my role to assist with both engineering as well as with our sales teams in understanding and disseminating the technology and taking the learnings from New Flyer and whatever was best in the market and bringing it to the coach world.

I’m just looking at the milestones on New Flyer. In 2017 you introduced a next generation battery electric bus, previously the first battery electric bus in 2012. Describe what exactly was going on in that five-year gap.

Lots of R and D, lots of testing, lots of lessons learned and in a big sense waiting for the next technology to really come online. These are all things that were happening simultaneously and, in a sense, connected. Our role was to determine how we best adopt that technology and integrate them into our products. For battery development, for example, that’s driven by other factors other than the bus world. Tesla’s onboarding of vehicles and their proliferation, the market, which was certainly happening in the mid-2010s there. So again, our job was to say, how can this technology best affect our industry, and what is the best stuff to be adopting. How do we take it and integrate it into our products? Whether we’re testing them in house through our various methodology and processes or having customer trials. Our goal was to test them out in the field, collect data, have them tell us what’s great about it, what’s bad about it, and take those lessons and turn them into newer prototypes that are bigger and better. Then again, introducing that new technology as it comes online and really getting to the point where we felt comfortable in having a commercially available mass manufacturer. That is definitely five years’ worth of work.

Let’s go over the ZEB subsidy. If you could just briefly describe how the companies are purchasing zero emission buses or upgrading their current buses to ZEBs in general.

The transit world is definitely leading that charge (no pun unintended) for a number of reasons. Transit agencies are public companies, so they have pressure and mandates from governments, as well as opportunities for funding to really try the technology first by getting bus fleets. It’s not a single vehicle or a couple of vehicles in a lot of cases, especially for bigger cities. It’s hundreds or thousands of vehicles. There’s a critical mass there within that sector, so it made sense to expand this to the motor coach world first, that operates within the public sector. Of course, the private sector equivalent of that was working again with our private sector gear product line – our J series (J4500 CHARGE™). When we launched our J Battery Electric coach to serve some customers that had a similar duty cycle, you have these large campuses that have lots of employees and the companies that run them offering this as a service to get their employees to and from work every day. Again, similar to the public sector, transit agencies operate where you have a central depot to take the coaches out. You take the folks there in the morning, you come back, it gives you an opportunity for recharging, and then do the same thing later in the evening. The distance isn’t too long, although longer than within just a city itself, so that was basically our strategy to adopt all of the technology.

Let’s fast forward to the future and where you see these buses going. Describe the manufacturer’s plan for electric vehicles over the next five to ten years.

There’s a couple of different things that are happening in parallel, you have the technology improving on one end, and then at the heart of it, we’re expert coach manufacturers. For us it’s to continue improving the coach itself, while also being careful about selecting the best technologies that suit our duty, cycles, our customer needs, and that critical step which is the integration of it. We have plenty of activity where we’re benchmarking and trying to stay abreast of the latest and greatest technology, while also continuing on with our product improvement.

In terms of distance, how far will one charge get you?

It depends on the on the specific product, and exactly where its generation is being deployed. So, I just got off of the product launch of our next generation public sector coach, and it’s going to go up 225 plus miles on an average duty cycle. If you have something that’s considerably more challenging, you’ll get a little less. But if you have something that’s a little bit easier, you’ll get a little bit more. That really is the sweet spot for a daily operating cycle for our public sector.

Are there a sufficient number of stations available for these coaches?

For public sector coaches for sure, it’s very much operated like in the public transit space with the transit buses, where you have a central depot that contains all the chargers. That makes it a lot simpler for us and the customers themselves, because it means that they leave the yard on a full charge. They come back when they’re done for the day, and that’s when they have the opportunity to recharge. So, having stations installed along the way isn’t necessary, which is great, and that’s why it makes it such a sensible first type of application to be trying out this technology. We want to expand range, and as the comfort level grows, we think that we can definitely achieve that. For this to work we need to have some sort of opportunity charging, which basically means using chargers along the way. Simple answer to your question is no, that there aren’t enough.

What sets you apart from your direct competitor?

I think the biggest part would be our history of reliability. Our expertise is we’re really good coach manufacturers. We have that reliability-driven mantra that we live and die by. We are a coach, but a provider who happens to be also very good at developing battery propulsion technology for our product specifically. So just because you say that you can build a bus and put some batteries on it doesn’t mean that the whole overall vehicle works out very well. So, we really lean on that century-long experience of engineering, having our products in the field and servicing them. There is a whole network and a whole supply chain, from beginning of life of the product to end of life of the product that we really feel we have the edge on.

Final thoughts?

We’re pretty confident in what we’re doing with the products, how we’re responding to customer needs, and how we’re actually able to go above and beyond. With the technology that’s available, I would say that what would be great is if customers know that they need to go zero emissions for our customer base to really consider what coach has to offer.

We are always interested in doing science experiments, as I like to call them, where we take them out on a route, do pilot projects and really gain an understanding for how the technology works. Once you find out that you have the application where it works well, the total cost of ownership question comes in there as well. So, it’s not just for environmental sustainability goals, but you can actually make good economic gains as well, with reductions to maintenance costs and operations costs. Look at the price of fuel now…I don’t think it’s going down any time soon, so using domestically produced electricity or dynamically produced fuel for a zero mission is a tremendous opportunity. I think it’s going to happen.

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