One of the largest electric bus companies in the U.S. will now become the largest in North America.
Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD unveiled on Friday a major expansion of its bus and coach manufacturing facility in Lancaster, Calif., just north of Los Angeles.
The factory is nearly tripling its size, expanding from 150,000 to 440,000 square feet. An additional 700 workers will support production of as many as 1,500 battery-electric buses annually, a tenfold increase in output from when it first began building e-buses there in 2013.
“The technology is at a place where the transit industry feels it can start purchasing large quantities and start converting their entire fleet to electric,” said Andy Swanton, vice president of the BYD Truck division. “It’s being driven in large part by our customers, who are changing their tune based off the success of early deployments.”
The expansion is the latest in a state where automotive jobs are on the rise. Motor vehicle manufacturing now employs about 30,000 workers in California, a 22 percent gain from 2014, according to the state Employment Development Department’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
BYD has had electric buses in operation in the U.S. since 2011, but it has seen a significant uptick in orders recently. Los Angeles Metro committed to 60 BYD buses over the summer, and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority has committed to a 10 percent electric fleet with its 80 buses, the majority of which will come from BYD. The company also has e-bus orders with the University of California, Irvine and Stanford University.
“California has a lot of orders” that are driven in large part by emissions regulations in the state, Swanton said. “There isn’t a transit agency in California that isn’t looking to do something in the zero emissions space. In terms of sheer volume, California is definitely trail blazing.”
Not only is California the largest market for electric buses, it is quickly becoming the country’s hub for EV manufacturing of all kinds. Tesla Inc. accounts for much of the growth after launching production of electric cars at a factory in Fremont in 2012. Electric car companies Karma Automotive, formerly Fisker, and Faraday Future also have facilities in the state.
“The technology is reaching a head with all the progress in the light-duty sector getting battery packs into vehicles,” said Jimmy O’Dea, vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It started with Tesla leading the way with the Roadster and then Nissan jumping in as the first major auto maker, and we’re seeing a similar track in the heavy-duty side.”
BYD is one of two major upstarts in the electric heavy-duty space that has selected California as its base of operations. Proterra, based in Burlingame, Calif., opened a new electric bus factory just outside Los Angeles in July. The 100,000-square-foot space is capable of building 400 electric buses each year. Nationally, the market is 5,000 buses annually.
California’s open door policy for electric-vehicle innovators has encouraged a spate of investment in electric bus manufacturing. While the market for electric buses is currently small, there is growing competition among manufacturers. In addition to BYD and Proterra, other electric bus competition includes Ebus, a California manufacturer; Green Power Motor Co., a Canadian electric bus maker with a U.S. subsidiary in California; and New Flyer Industires, a major conventional bus maker that has branched into electric power train offerings as well.
Electrification is a good fit for transit buses, which have fixed routes and a home base they return to every night where they can be recharged. Battery technologies have also improved over the years, enabling some electric buses to travel more than 200 miles per charge — well within range of many transit routes.
O’Dea refers to transit buses as “the tip of the spear” for heavy-duty vehicles, including trucks. Buses are expected to be the fastest-growing segment of electric heavy-duty vehicles in the near future, according to industry research firm IHS Market.
“Cities and countries are requiring more and more that emissions overall be reduced and the most natural way to get there is either through alt fuels like natural gas or electrification,” said Antti Linstrom, truck analyst with IHS Market.
California may be the largest market for electric buses, but it is not the only market. Transit agencies from Juneau, Alaska, and Huntsville, Ala., to Honolulu and Hartford, Mo. are beginning to incorporate electric buses into their fleets. Transit agencies in Texas and Utah also have received federal funding for low and no emissions electric buses through the Federal Transit Administration.