No limits with electricity
Electric buses that can be driven indoors and plug-in hybrids that are charged at the terminus. In Gothenburg in western Sweden, Volvo Buses is currently involved in a number of unique products designed to improve the environment in the city.
The call for cleaner air and a quieter environment is becoming increasingly intensive and the control of vehicles that are allowed to enter city centres is being stepped up, to keep pace with urban growth.
For a number of years now, the Volvo Group has been involved in developing hybrid and electric vehicles and the Group’s trucks equipped with this technology are transporting refuse and goods in different part of the world. As far as Volvo Buses is concerned, hybrid technology has placed the company at the cutting edge, according to Ulf Gustafsson, public affairs, who is involved with product issues related to electromobility.
“We are world leaders. I can say that without blushing. This is completely in line with our work on sustainable transport solutions,” he says.
Come with Global Magazine on a journey on a plug-in hybrid in Gothenburg and listen to the silence.
It is early morning in Gothenburg. Krister Rydin, a bus driver on route 60, is just about to start his shift. He has been driving buses for more than 40 years, but this time it is somewhat different.
The bus is a plug-in hybrid, developed by Volvo Buses, and he will be accompanied by his colleague, Martin Hone, who is being trained in the technology.
“It goes without saying that the driving is the same. What we have to learn is what we do at the charging station,” says Krister, as the last passengers disembark before the bus drives away from the bus stop outside the central station.
The bus starts and there is no sound. It pulls away as though it were not in operation and, according to Krister, the passengers often react because it is so quiet. When they understand that the bus is largely powered by electricity, many of them are really impressed.
“This bus receives a huge amount of praise,” he says, pointing out that it is a question not simply of improving the urban environment but also his own working environment.
“Otherwise, we are constantly surrounded by noise and I have a slight hearing impairment, so the silence is wonderful,” he adds.
Martin agrees. When he started driving buses more than 25 years ago, the environment was far worse.
“All the emissions made our lives a misery. Even before we left the terminus, there was a cloud of emissions around the bus. Things have really moved forward,” he says.
The bus on route 60 is part of an EU project and is involved in a field test with a total of three plug-in hybrid buses which Volvo Buses is conducting in Gothenburg until September next year. This is the world’s first test on industrially manufactured plug-in hybrids and the target is to begin the series production of buses once the project is complete. These buses are expected to reduce energy consumption by as much as 60 per cent compared with other buses in urban traffic, while cutting carbon emissions by almost 80 per cent.
Krister has left the centre of the city and is heading for the hills in a residential area. He praises the gears and tells his colleague that he thinks this model is smoother and more responsive to drive. On the steepest hill, a rumbling noise can suddenly be heard inside the bus. The diesel engine is operating for the first time.
“That’s some difference!” he says with a laugh.
The transition to diesel operation is automatic. The bus has been running for just over half an hour and the battery is almost discharged.
When the bus arrives at the bus stop where the charging station is located, Krister must position the bus in exactly the right place. He shows Martin the button on the instrument panel he needs to press to start charging. Via a specially designed post, the electricity is transferred to the battery, which is located on the roof of the bus.
After a few minutes, the instrument panel shows that the bus is fully charged and ready for Krister to drive away – once again in total silence.
According to Ulf Gustafsson at Volvo Buses, public transport with its many stops and starts is ideal for hybrid and electrical technology.
“As we are now developing this technology even further, we are tackling the future challenge of sustainable transport solutions,” he says.
There are several reasons why this project is being run in Gothenburg. It is close to the company’s development departments and it is important for Volvo Buses to make itself visible in the city in which a large part of the Group’s operations are based.
Developments when it comes to the new hybrid technology have gone quickly at Volvo Buses and Ulf Gustafsson is delighted.
“I have been involved for 40 years in areas including product planning at Volvo Buses and I have to say that it has never been as much fun as it is now.”
The same positive message comes from Johan Hellsing, an electrical engineer at Group Trucks Technology (GTT) and an expert on alternative drivelines. He has been the project manager for the work on the plug-in hybrid and he explains enthusiastically that Volvo Buses can now reap the rewards of a system that is already really well developed.
“Thanks to the well-developed hybrid technology that already exists within the Group, this project has not encountered any major technical challenges. I joined the project just over a year ago and I was positively surprised by how well everything works,” he says.
According to Johan Hellsing, the difference between a hybrid bus and a plug-in hybrid is not that great.
“It’s a question of the way the electricity is transferred. In a hybrid bus, the batteries are charged when the bus brakes. The electric motor operates for short periods, at bus stops, for example. In a plug-in hybrid, the charge comes from the mains network. For this reason, the batteries are larger and heavier and can be used for longer distances. So the diesel engine is a back-up instead of the other way round,” he explains.
The challenge has instead been to get the infrastructure to work when it comes to transferring electricity to the bus.
“This is a totally new market both for us and the cities and, even if we don’t design the actual electricity posts at which the bus is charged, we need to understand and influence the technology so that it functions with our design,” he says.
The next stage in the development process is a pure electric bus and, according to Johan Hellsing, a great deal may well happen when it comes to the design of the vehicle.
“Without the diesel engine, it would, for example, be possible to fit an electric motor directly at each wheel. There are so many possibilities. It’s also a question of developing the technology for the battery and finding efficient ways of charging,” he explains.
The future for pure electric buses has, in fact, already arrived. Just a couple of blocks from where Krister Rydin is driving on route 60, representatives from the City of Gothenburg and the Volvo Group met in June for the solemn inauguration of yet another project – on this occasion, buses powered exclusively by electricity. To prove that the bus emits neither emissions nor noise, it was driven straight into one of Gothenburg’s largest shopping centres in the middle of the lunch rush.
The project is known as ElectriCity and these electric buses will run between two university and research areas in the city, starting in 2015.
On the bus, in the midst of the shops and surprised shoppers, the passengers included Lars Backström, the managing director of Västtrafik, the company responsible for all public transport in the region. Every day, some 400,000 people travel on Västtrafik’s vehicles and, according to Lars Backström, this is absolutely in keeping with the times.
“There are no limits, when it comes to electricity. It will make it possible for us to take public transport as close to passengers as it is humanly possible. As the city grows and becomes increasingly congested, this is an excellent solution,” he says.
Västtrafik has set challenging environmental targets. By 2025, 95 per cent of public transport is to be free from carbon emissions. Increasingly rigorous demands are also being imposed when it comes to giving the region’s inhabitants modern, attractive public transport.
“It’s our aim to ensure that people choose public transport because they want to – not because they have to,” he says.
Västtrafik welcomes the projects involving plug-in hybrids and full electricity in Gothenburg.
“It’s both fantastic and cool to be involved in testing this new technology. We have had a good relationship with Volvo Buses for many years and this is going to improve our environment and also demonstrate that this city is at the cutting edge,” he says, pointing out that major investments in this type of technology in the future will also require guarantees that it actually works.
“We are working on agreements that cover a period of eight years and we can’t afford to take any chances. The systems and technology have to be reliable. That’s why we are running these pilots in regular traffic but not as part of the scheduled timetable to avoid impacting our passengers more than necessary,” he adds.
Krister Rydin, who is driving the plug-in hybrid in Gothenburg, also welcomes the project and thinks it is really rewarding to be involved in testing new technology.
“I am extremely pleased. This is something out of the ordinary. Tell Volvo Buses that it’s doing a great job!” he says.