EconomyFinancialGet on it, get on it! The minibuses will...

Get on it, get on it! The minibuses will now be electric and 'made in China'

Electric vehicles have come a long way in the last decade. Although public interest in how the technology works, how much it costs to own it and its benefits has focused more on cars for personal use, some analysts envision these technologies hitting the streets first in trucks and buses.

“I believe that the public transport market may be the first to completely switch to zero emissions, even before private use,” says Gerardo Gómez, general director of JD Power in Mexico. “It is relatively less complex to electrify public transport, because the routes are already pre-established and you can have greater control over the autonomy and recharging times of the units,” adds Guido Vildozo, an analyst at IHS Markit specializing in the automotive sector.

By 2030, 63% of the world’s bus fleet will be electric, according to data from the Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021. The expectation is that the electrification of urban transport will accelerate in the second half of the current decade, thanks to falling costs. of batteries and larger-scale manufacturing.

Electric buses, in almost all configurations, have a lower total cost of operation than conventional diesel buses. Maintenance is less, because electric cars also have fewer moving parts, and fuel savings can be significant – up to 30% according to Mercedes-Benz calculations – when comparing the cost of electricity with diesel.

Electricity has been used as a power source for several decades to power metro and trolleybus networks. However, it is only in recent years that the technology has become available for use in a wider range of public transport, with the aim of reducing emissions. Gasoline and diesel vehicles generate 22.8% of the CO2 equivalent that Mexico emits per year, according to data from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The challenges

While there is a lot of excitement around electric buses, due to the environmental benefits and reduced operating costs, there are still several challenges to overcome, such as higher purchase prices compared to diesel or gasoline buses, the need to a new charging infrastructure and still limited driving ranges.

There are also other less obvious ones, such as the increased weight of the units. While a 215 liter diesel tank weighs about 200 kilos and the energy stored is equivalent to 2,100 kWh, six battery packs for an electric bus weigh one and a half tons and the energy stored is much less. “We are carrying more weight and less energy. Playing with that is going to be very challenging”, says Sebastián Pesado, coordinator of the Office of the CEO of Mercedes-Benz.

Even small details will have an impact. “Energy consumption can almost double on routes that have a high demand for air conditioning, such as in the north of the country or beach destinations. Energy consumption will not be the same on a Monterrey route as on another from Aguascalientes,” adds Pesado.

In addition, many buses will run all day and route concessionaires will need to assess whether they will need chargers for the entire fleet or just a portion of it. Deploying this cargo network will be key. “If there is no infrastructure, it will be difficult for a concessionaire to adopt a cleaner technology,” says Miguel Elizalde, president of the National Association of Bus, Truck and Tractor Truck Producers (Anpact).

As buses continue to be deployed and upgraded, analysts expect these challenges will no longer be obstacles. China will lead this transition: sales there will represent almost 50% of the global electric vehicle market in 2025 and 39% in 2030. The Asian country has not only focused on accelerating the electrification of its public transport, but has even started to position itself as a key global supplier.

the first route

In Mexico the first steps have already been taken. Jalisco inaugurated the first wireless electric public transport route in mid-2021. The first 38 Sunwin brand buses arrived from China. The units, with a capacity of 58 passengers, arrived at the port of Manzanillo from Shanghai.

Elizalde sees in the country a growth, “although to a lesser extent”, of electric technology, compared to others such as natural gas or hybrid. “I think if an additional push came along, like green financing, it could speed up adoption,” he says.

By 2030, between 10% and 15% of public transport units in Mexico, where around 8,500 buses are sold a year, could be electric, according to calculations by Mercedes-Benz. “Perhaps the electrification will begin with some BRT lanes -such as the Metrobus systems- or on some routes along main avenues, to later be extended to the concession routes,” Pesado envisions.

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