The Obama Administration had a goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 to break the United States’ dependence on oil. To help in meeting that goal, stimulus funding was spent to promote advanced vehicles and a domestic battery industry.
Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium Executive Director & CEO Dr. Josipa Petrunic said that was happening at a time when the auto sector was decimated by the recession and struggling to figure out how it was going to survive into the future.
“In the U.S. there was all this investment by the government to really shore up the industry and in Canada, there was nothing,” she said. “Federally there was extremely little investment. There were some loan programs created, but very little.”
At that time, Petrunic was at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, trying to create the policies and do the research to justify why this kind of electric vehicle innovation had to happen in Canada or it would lose its auto sector. She was working in the engineering department at the university where their big global focus was electric, hybrid and electric cars.
Petrunic said, “I was working as senior policy analyst and researcher there for about two years and we pulled together, about 4,000 companies from transit agencies and universities in Canada, who were doing electric vehicle research and development.
“We were trying to convince the federal and provincial government, as well as industry partners to co-invest in an innovation consortium that would kick start Canada’s innovation capacity, R&D and commercialization in electric vehicles.”
The start of CUTRIC
In 2014, some private industry members and public transit agencies in Canada conglomerated under the header of the Canadian Urban Transit Association with a vision to create an innovation consortium that would push forward projects on behalf of transportation, specifically public transportation, and shared mobility. Petrunic said they had a great idea and a $50,000 loan that CUTA members put up as financing.
As Petrunic was reaching out for seed money for research of electric technologies in the auto industry, she was approached and asked if she would consider doing the exact same thing for public transportation. “They had opened up a call for a director and then I entered that call and the rest is history,” she laughed.
In the early days, most transit agencies were not prepared to think about electric vehicles. A lot of companies Petrunic had been working with were in the auto sector, fleet operators, truck manufacturers, service delivery or maintenance operations organizations, and utilities and energy producers.
As she started in CUTRIC, the auto industry didn’t particularly come forward, she said, as the job was essentially to reduce single-passenger car consumption. Fast forward four years and now, she said they have companies like Toyota, GM and Ford reaching out to them.
“There’s a lot of convergence that’s starting to happen,” said Petrunic. “Not as companies, but in terms of strategic focus in the next 10 to 20 years to survive and be profitable. “
As an example of classic consortium problems that have successfully helped to build CUTRIC, the $45 million Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial is one of its marquee projects.
A lot of community transit agencies wanted to go to electric buses but they were worried about non-standardized charging and worried if they bought a bus, they couldn’t plug and play. “And they were right … so that was a problem,” she said.
“If you’re a reasonably sized transit agency, like a mid-sized agency with a few hundred buses but not thousands, you might not have the risk ability to endure a mistake,” said Petrunic.” Especially when the mistake costs a million dollars vs. a diesel costs $500,000.”
Transit agencies had that need and had some money: the money they would spend on the diesel buses. But, they didn’t have all the money for the buses or the chargers or the research and development or the technical engineering that had to go into standardization, she explained.
There were a lot of utilities that wanted to see what the demand would be if a bunch of buses pulled on the grid at different times of the day at high power but they didn’t have the clientele. There were also the manufacturers with products but couldn’t sit down at the table with competitors to standardize technology, largely due to anti-trust legislation meant to avoid collusion and corruption.
Petrunic said, “Classic consortium problem.
“We all need standardization. We all know it’s going to advance the market. It’s technologically difficult, but we’re willing to do it.
“We all have a little bit of money but none of us has enough money to do it all on our own. And, we all have some brains and knowledge, but we need the brains and knowledge of everybody else at the table to make the project happen.”
Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial
The project started off with a group of about eight transit agencies in Canada that put up their hands saying yes to getting into electric buses. They were willing to put money on the table, money that would have gone to diesel buses.
Of the original eight transit agencies, five dropped out due to political reasons, funding reasons, and/or trepidation at taking on the risk.
The three transit agencies in the project were able to convince local councilors to give CUTRIC the time to plan it out, work with local standards, work through all of the data analysis and engineering analysis that will happen during the first three years of the deployment of the vehicles. The project is being launched in Vancouver, Brampton and York with 18 electric buses and seven overhead chargers.
CUTRIC’s task was to go out and talk to manufacturers and figure out which ones were willing to come to the table and abandon their proprietary technology, because not all of them would, said Petrunic.
The project launched with New Flyer, Nova Bus, ABB and Siemens. She said, “Those four manufacturers were willing to abandon whatever proprietary technology they were developing, talk to each other, work with each other through the CUTRIC exchange committee and working group structure, to design standardized, interoperable, plug-and-play overhead charging.
“Those companies all took risk. It cost them a lot of money for this project,” she continued. “It was something they decided to invest a lot of engineering time on, without a guaranteed sale at the end. And transit agencies similarly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in labor time taking 2-1/2 years and planning it out thoroughly.”
The process takes time to plan it out technically, as accurately as possible from an engineering perspective and an urban planning perspective and future-proofed as much as possible.
The important distinction is that what comes out at the end is a world-class trial, said Petrunic, and not just a pilot project that may or may not succeed, or may or may not have impact on the commercialization of this technology. “This kind of thing can’t happen anywhere else.”
She stressed, “We call them integration trials because the vehicles that are purchased or leased … are meant to be a permanent part of your fleet. It’s not that after two or three years, you give it back or you give it up; that happens way too often. That doesn’t move the needle.”
“We have to remind people we’re not an industry association,” Petrunic said. “CUTA is a member of ours, OPTA is a member of ours … they’re industry associations. They represent their industry, but it’s a wide plethora of industry members.
“They don’t do technology innovation projects, they don’t do R&D in-house.”
She stated, “The way I best describe CUTRIC is a not-for-profit engineering consulting project planning wing that also happens to do the fiscal lobbying. As a result of that, you get these projects.”
They plan these projects out in a not-for-profit way, so as to keep it as cheap as possible for the taxpayer, but they also get the investment and industry partners to help carry the project forward. She said, “It’s a king of big mix and it doesn’t always work and it gets really contentious.”
Data will be collected and analyzed from independent data loggers, looking at how the bus is performing, how the power pack is performing, how the charger’s performing, impacts on the grid, and any degradation. There will also be a social analysis, including how the drivers and riders like the vehicles.
“I think there are about 50 variables that we decided that our team will be collecting over three years and reporting every month or every quarter to the project partners,” said Petrunic, “both for the manufacturers to improve their products and the transit agencies to know what’s happening on the ground.”
The trial is in phase 2, the technical planning of increasing the power of the chargers. The overhead chargers launching in phase one are 450 kW. The power level was pushed up to 450 kW to drive down the number of minutes the bus has to charge; the next step is pushing it up to 600 Kw.
“We know the charging manufacturers can do it,” said Petrunic, “the problem is, there is going to be degradation to the charger … the bigger problem for the bus manufacturer is how do you receive that power on board without blowing the battery or degrading the battery.”
The research and developing in stage 2 is how do they trade better battery management systems power electronics or is the innovation simply reduced warranty conditions.
The second part of phase 2 is energy storage integration. “If you’re pulling power off the grid at 640 Kw, you’re essentially going to be hit with these demand charges from the electrical grid company, which is going to charge you money to deliver you energy at that power level because they have to build up the infrastructure to make sure it can do so effectively and safely,” said Petrunic.
She said they need to get away from that kind of power demand cost structure and to put a battery or a mechanical device like a flywheel, some kind of energy storage between the grid and the charger. The storage device could trickle charge, pulling power off the grid at a low power level under the threshold. Petrunic said, “That innovation, to balance the grid, would help utilities know the grids are not going to be fried by a bunch of high-powered bus systems pulling on it.
“It also helps transit agencies know that by going green, they actually will realize and see their savings, because there is a cost there.” She continued, “No matter how expensive your electricity is, it’s always cheaper than diesel from the combustion perspective.
“I know people don’t believe it, but it’s basic mathematics and physics.”
She said while transit agencies like the cost savings, some of that is run down when they get on-demand charges. So the integration of energy storage helps avoid that delivery charge.
Formulating the scope of the project, determining the budget and meeting with companies and agencies that are interested lasts about 10 to 12 months. Petrunic said they do about five sessions where they scope the project and as that comes to a close, people decide whether they’re in or out and if they’re in, she said it means money on the table.
She clarified it’s not always going to be valuable to all transit agencies and it’s not always going to be valuable to all innovative companies in mobility. “The kind of value we create and bring to the table as a not-for-profit is that we initiate projects that are classic consortium problems.”
Where she said they’ve seen their value grow as an organization, and where projects form, is with mid-size transit agencies large manufacturers that are trying do something new in their own strategic vision.
Petrunic said of CUTRIC’s projects, “If it wasn’t needed, it wouldn’t exist.” She explained, “It’s an organization that’s set up to serve very specific purposes.”
CUTRIC-led Commercialization Projects
Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial
The project consists of multiple phases of integrating standardized battery electric and hybrid electric buses with high-powered overhead charging systems across Canadian transit agencies by 2022.
Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Demonstration & Integration Trial
The project consists of multiple phases of integrating hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles across multiple transit agencies with the intention of demonstrating low well-to-wheel lifecycle emissions from hydrogen production, transmissions, delivery and “combustion” in propulsion applications for on-road mobility services.
National Smart Vehicle Demonstration & Integration Trial
The project plans to integrate semi-autonomous and eventually fully autonomous, connected, and electric vehicle shuttles, pods and buses across up to 12 Canadian municipal jurisdictions as first-last-mile applications. The primary project objectives are the development of standardized vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-Internet communication protocols; interoperability standards for electric low-speed autonomous shuttle manufacturer equipment; and standardized cybersecurity protocols.
Natural Gas Mobility Innovation Consultation Process
The project highlights a series of consutation sessions with industry stakeholders to outline a seet of strateig initiatives and opportunities that could be developed in the near and long term to support the advancement of natural gas applications for low-emissions vehicular systems and fleet deployments as part of a low-carbon economy.