Range Anxiety? Proterra’s Electric Bus Goes 1,100 Miles

September 19, 2017 by John O'Dell

Electric bus maker Proterra Inc. ran a test bus 1,101.2 miles on a single charge of its massive 660 kilowatt-hour battery array, a record, the company said, for any heavy-duty electric vehicle.

The range record may not seem to mean much in real-world applications – it was achieved with an empty 40-foot bus on a Navistar International Inc. test track in New Carlisle, Ind. – but Matt Horton, Proterra’s chief commercial officer, said it is intended to showcase a new high-capacity, high-power battery design that will “put an end to range anxiety for anyone in the transit market.”

The announcement also is intended to set the stage for a future move by California-based Proterra into building and selling electric drive systems, including batteries, for heavy commercial trucks.

Proterra developed the new battery pack used in the record-setting Catalyst E2 bus in partnership with South Korean battery cell maker LG Chem.

The company said LG will be supplying the cells to be used for Proterra’s long-range E2 battery program and that its new battery manufacturing plant in Burlingame, Calif., is being ramped up to produce 500,000 kWh of E2 battery packs per year.

The 40-foot Catalyst E2 electric bus was introduced last year and has a range of up to 350 miles in real-world use, according to Proterra.

Proterra’s building a battery pack and the related electric powertrain to haul a large bus that distance “shows that there are other possibilities for electric drive in heavy applications, such as refuse trucks, drayage and short-haul freight movement,” Horton told Trucks.com.

The cells LG developed have higher energy density, greater power output and longer lifespan than previous cells it has supplied, Horton said.

Proterra Catalyst electric bus back view

Proterra 40-foot Catalyst E2 electric bus. (Photo: Proterra)

The E2 battery pack has an energy density of 160 watt-hours per kilogram. Proterra claims that’s the highest ever for a heavy-duty application. A 2016 bus battery report by the California Air Resources Board cites a high density of 140 watt-hours per kilogram for heavy-duty electric vehicle batteries.

In contrast, the battery pack density for a Tesla Model S electric passenger car is 184 watt-hours per kilogram.

“There are a lot of very smart people working very hard” to develop better batteries for passenger and commercial electric vehicles, said Steve Tam, vice president of trucking industry consulting firm ACT Research.

Batteries that can provide extended range without sacrificing payload “are the Holy Grail for commercial trucking,” he said. “If they have done this, kudos to them.”

Demonstrating a better electric bus battery can definitely help open up new markets in other transportation segments, Tam said.

Don’t assume, though, that a distance record with an electric bus can easily translate to success with electric truck powertrains, said David Roush, president of KSM Transport Advisors.

A Class 8 over-the-road tractor-trailer “is a much different animal than a bus,” Roush said.

Still, electric commercial vehicle technology “definitely has a future,” he said. “It’s great that [manufacturers] are continuing to push the limit.”

Proterra is a major manufacturer of all-electric transit buses but needs to expand into the commercial trucking arena to broaden its base and help stave off competitors such as Los Angeles-based BYD Motors, the North American arm of China’s BYD Inc., which builds both electric buses and electric trucks.

Proterra believes public transit will be the first transportation segment to go fully electric, Horton said.

Bus fleet operators are under pressure at local and state levels to reduce emissions and hold the line on operating costs – a selling point for electric vehicles. While upfront pricing is typically higher than internal combustion models, the fuel and maintenance costs can more than offset the purchase premium over a bus or truck’s useful lifespan.

Proterra Catalyst electric bus side view

Proterra 40-foot Catalyst E2 electric bus. (Photo: Proterra)

A Proterra electric bus costs about $689,000 after incentives, according to Foothill Transit, a longtime Proterra customer in Southern California. A comparable compressed natural gas bus runs about $550,000 and a diesel bus about $490,000, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

A federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that electric buses were eight times more energy efficient than those running on natural gas, and that cut spare parts consumption by 80 percent per mile.

Even as Proterra continues its bus operation, it’s in talks with commercial truck companies about supplying electric drive systems, Horton said, claiming interest “from dozens of operators.”

Proterra intends to help other manufacturers “pursue their electrification programs” and will be offering “entire powertrains, including battery packs and controls,” he said.

He wouldn’t identify potential customers, but most heavy-duty truck makers are developing all-electric models, either independently or in partnership with powertrain companies.

Peterbilt introduced a prototype Class 8 battery-electric refuse truck earlier this year; engine-developer Cummins Inc. unveiled a prototype electric Class 7 “urban hauler” tractor last month; Daimler Trucks’ Mitsubishi Fuso unit just launched the battery-electric eCanter, a Class 4 urban work truck; Daimler is expected to show a Class 8 electric tractor at the Tokyo Motor Show next month; Wrightspeed has been installing its range-extended electric powertrain in Class 8 refuse trucks since late 2016; Motiv Power Systems builds scalable electric powertrains for numerous commercial applications, including refuse and delivery trucks; Orange EV builds heavy-duty electric drayage tractors for port and terminal applications; and BYD builds Class 5 through Class 8 battery-electric vans and trucks.

Additionally, electric car builder Tesla Inc. plans to enter the heavy truck market and is scheduled to unveil its all-electric Class 8 Tesla truck in October. Toyota is testing a Class 8 hydrogen fuel-cell electric drayage truck at the Port of Los Angeles. U.S. Hybrid and Kenworth have said they will also be building Class 8 fuel-cell electric drayage trucks, and Utah-based Nikola Motor, a start-up with ambitious plans, is designing a Class 8 long-haul hydrogen fuel-cell electric truck.

All of those trucks need batteries and electric motors plus the operating software and related hardware – such as battery cooling system; all things that Proterra makes.

Proterra gets its battery cells from several manufacturers, including LG Chem, then designs its battery packs and battery system and powertrain control logic around them.

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