Martha’s Vineyard has bought into China’s electric bus trend. With a $545,000 grant from Massachusetts, the Vineyard Transportation Authority purchased six electric buses powered with lithium iron phosphate batteries, developed by Build Your Dreams (BYD)—a Chinese company that is the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer. Two 30-foot buses came at a cost of $529,418 each and four 35-foot buses at $729,000 each. Most of those buses, obtained in June, were in maintenance shortly thereafter as technical problems arose when drivers tried to turn on the headlights.

Similar fleets in Los Angeles and Albuquerque could not climb up hills, could not drive reliably over 100 miles, and generally could not stay on the road. Los Angeles’s first five buses were so bad that they had to be pulled off their routes after less than five miles. Albuquerque experienced similar problems. Of the 16 buses BYD delivered to Albuquerque, seven were sent back because of cracks, leaking fluids, axle problems, and an inability to hold charges. The city ordered a fleet of 20, but their performance was so poor the city canceled the order and switched back to natural gas and diesel.

Despite the problems experienced, Los Angeles is still planning to obtain a fully electric bus fleet by 2030. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation announced in April a $36 million grant to purchase 112 electric buses, or $321,428 per bus. According to the California Energy Commission, the state spent nearly $80 million on electric vehicle infrastructure.

According to BYD, electric-vehicle ranges are an estimate and the actual range can vary widely based on weather, terrain, driver behavior, and other factors. For example, an electric bus will experience reduced range in cold weather if its driver turns on the heater at full strength.

Indianapolis

Indianapolis is reconsidering its electric bus deployment plans, indicating that electric-vehicle technology is not yet good enough to meet its needs. The city could not find 40-foot electric buses that could deliver the 300-mile range the system needs on its traditional routes. BYD’s shorter buses get up to 200 miles per charge—less miles than the 60-foot models because the shorter buses have only two battery packs; the longer ones have three.

Indianapolis is also concerned about having enough trained mechanics to work on the electric vehicles. It currently has 21 electric vehicles that were converted from traditional buses and acquired locally in 2015 that are used only during peak rush-hour periods. Because reliable service is important to Indianapolis, it is planning to exercise an option from a 2014 contract for sixteen 40-foot diesel vehicles at a cost of $411,000 each.

In September, Indianapolis is expected to begin receiving 60-foot buses that they ordered from BYD—about 13 electric buses for its Red Line, a rapid-transit route that is scheduled to launch next year, and another 18 for the planned Purple Line. BYD indicates the buses should get 300 miles on a charge—more than the city required in its request for proposals.

BYD’s Future

China invested more in electric buses than any other country, accounting for 99 percent of global electric bus purchases in 2017. In Shenzhen, China, where BYD is based, 100 percent of public buses are electric—the first city to attain that goal.

Electric bus adoption is expected to accelerate significantly in Europe and elsewhere by 2040. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 80 percent of city buses worldwide are expected to be electric by then. Bloomberg also projects that electric vehicles and buses will increase global electricity demand by 6 percent by 2040.

BYD has a solid footing in many European markets. Recently, BYD received an order for 24 electric buses in Sweden and two orders for 42 of its much larger electric buses from Oslo, Norway.

Poor performance in North American markets does not seem to have hurt BYD’s profits. To meet demand, the company has moved some production to the United States. It expanded its Lancaster factory in Southern California, tripling the square footage in the factory and adding a parts warehouse to the facility.

Conclusion

U.S. cities are moving toward electric buses, but the technology is not keeping up with the demand. China’s BYD is the largest electric vehicle company in the world and seems to have a bright future, especially in providing electric buses to Europe. But in the United States most cities are turning away from these electric buses because of mechanical and range problems that preclude the reliable service that the cities need. Los Angeles is the exception, wanting to have an all-electric bus fleet by 2030.