Hybrid electric/gas buses are used in many locations, but an all-electric bus is not common. Locations such as San Francisco offer electric buses, but most are connected to an electric system and unable to stray from the set route.
"Electric drive in transit has been around some time, but it's always been tethered," says Michael Elwood of Azure Dynamics, which offers smaller electric vehicles as well as hybrid vehicles. "Now, transit agencies are looking for primarily pure electric drive for mass transit that isn't tethered. A lot of transit systems are using hybrid, diesel-electric vehicles that are designed to work in parallel with an electric motor so you get the best of both worlds."
It's the all-electric bus that does not have to run on a connected line that transit systems are seeking. Foothill is one of the first transit agencies to use an all-electric bus, but the demand is there and growing.
The Foothill Transit system has received little to no complaints on its electric bus service.
Foothill put three fully electric buses into service a year ago. There hasn't been an overwhelming response by riders of the route on which all three are deployed, but that's just how Foothill representatives want it.
"The biggest thing they say is there isn't a difference, which is what we're looking for," says Felicia Friesema, communications manager for Foothill. "It is so much quieter, and the loudest thing on the bus is the air conditioning.
"As long as the bus is able to provide seamless service, that's all riders care about. They don't want something that's a new technology if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do."
The technology is doing what is expected of it, and it's evolving.
"People say, 'You'll never make a battery-powered bus last 17 hours a day on one charge,'" says Dale Hill, founder of Proterra Inc., which made the three Ecoliner buses Foothill uses. "It may be a long time, but we came out of the box and asked ourselves what an urban transit bus does. It repeats the same route every hour or so, comes back to a common point and has a five-minute layover to be on time for the next route. We said if we could build a bus that has enough energy to run three or four hours and be charged every hour, that bus will fit into an urban bus environment."
Proterra's rapid-charge technology is rather new and allows transit systems to keep a bus in service longer than in the past.
"Up until now, electric bus technology required an overnight charge. You could run a 30-mile stretch and had to charge overnight," Friesema said. "We cannot operate a service with a vehicle out of service after one trip.
"Fast-charge technology enables us to keep the bus going."
"We do have a request out to purchase nine more buses via a grant," Friesema said. "We received largest the TIGER grant from the United States ($10.2 million) and we'll use that to purchase those buses.
"It's a demonstration project where we're trying to test and work the technology so it fits with service we provide. It's a new technology, so there have been some things for us to work around. But they have been very minor things."
Proterra's business has been picking up as of late thanks to the TIGER II grant program through the United States Department of Transportation. Hill said there will be three buses going to San Antonio in the future, and there will be others sent to Tallahassee, Fla., early next year.
"We have a number of other transit agencies through the grant program that have either submitted something or will submit something in the next few weeks," Hill said. "There are probably another 15 agencies soliciting funding."
Shorter Routes Prove Ideal
Washington's King County is working with ECOtality on installing charging stations for its metro van pool. The county is looking into possibly making its paratransit routes for disabled riders all-electric.