Green buses in India – Are we asking for too much?

There was a recent news release from Ashok Leyland, the flagship company of the Hinduja Group, about plans to launch hybrid Optare buses in India.  While we know of some bold transit authorities in the U.S. and Europe running buses on hybrid power train, the news still appeared as more of marketing gesture rather than a serious business announcement.  Given the credibility of the company, however, we were intrigued to look at some ground facts on the possibility of serious application of hybrid technology in our mass transportation systems. Considering India offers a meagre 1.29 buses per thousand passengers, while other well-planned countries provide vastly more — Brazil has 10.3 buses per thousand — the opportunity of making an impact is tremendous.  Is Hybrid the solution?

The hybrid transit bus evolution got a big marketing boost at the end of last year with the iconic London Redbus being prototyped on a hybrid power train (with the underlying design from Volvo).  It is a different matter that there was a kind of an anti-climax, though, because the bus had to pull over as the system was not designed for long-haul use.  In another development, China got its first indigenously developed solar powered hybrid bus – which claims to prolong the Lithium battery life by 35 percent.  In India too, a lot of hype got created with the launch of the Tata Starbus.  While the future has to be green, the economics of these buses and the peripheral systems have to allow a hybrid bus service to work from a cost perspective.  (there is no point running a few buses like we may end up doing…just doesn’t make economic sense..) Costs may become a huge barrier for its adoption beyond some pet ministerial projects.

The hybrid buses (and most of them are based on very costly technology from a few players) are at least 30% more expensive than the best buses running on Indian roads. Then there is also a choice between the type of drive train, a series-hybrid drive train and a parallel hybrid. Series hybrids are recognized as being more suitable for start-stop applications and allow flexible packaging in comparison to a parallel system where the mechanical drive shaft has to be 1.5-2m away from the rear axle. Series hybrids are very sensitive to failure, however, and if any of the electrical components fail it comes to a complete standstill – unfortunately many of the new components are susceptible to this. Then there are the batteries, they are expensive, hazardous, very bulky, add significant maintenance cost and some need to be changed as often as every four years.

In the context of adaptation of hybrid buses for Indian public transport, I believe that there are few things that need to happen before it can start making sense. Better batteries, lower initial cost, a better ecosystem and more importantly economies of scale. India can also choose to wait till the next wave of evolution in hybrids.  For example, a new technology for charging electric buses has already been introduced in Europe called Opportunity Charging.  This economical technology helps in the contactless charging of electric buses — where the driver needn’t leave the bus for recharging. We will follow the evolution closely and hopefully play a part.

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