Over the past few years, General Motors has made some efforts to atone for its past sins, real or perceived. When we interviewed Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, he was candid about the way the company was operated in the past. After enduring withering criticism from the media for “killing” the electric car when it halted the EV1 program, then crushed most of the cars, GM created the Chevrolet Volt, which is now the best-selling electric car (depending on your definition of an electric car, of course). Now, might GM be trying to rectify a wrong that it was alleged to have done not recently, but as many as 60 years ago. I’m referring to the allegation that GM purchased municipal streetcar lines across the country, shut them down, and happily sold buses and cars to folks in those cities instead.
And just how will GM atone for its past? The streetcars are gone, the tracks have been removed for decades, and people generally do not prefer public transit over private mobility (thanks in no small part to GM’s actions in the past).
GM Ventures (GM’s subsidiary created to encourage the development of future transportation technologies) has invested $6 million (along with other investment firms chipping in as well) on a combined $30 million investment in Proterra, Inc., a maker of battery-powered transit buses. According to GM, this investment is intended to help Proterra commercialize its electric bus and fast-charging technology, while also addressing the future challenges of urban mobility.
I’ve never heard of Proterra before, but their main product is apparently the EcoRide BE-35 battery electric bus. This zero emission transit vehicle (pictured above) is equipped with a set of 54 72-kWh lithium titanate battery packs.
What’s more, the fast-charging technology mentioned a few paragraphs ago sounds extremely impressive; thanks to a roof-mounted FastFill charging system, the buses can be fully charged in just 10 minutes. If electric cars could only be charged so quickly, that would go a long way toward addressing the infrastructure and range issues that make electric cars so unpopular with buyers today.
The buses average up to 24 mpg (MPGe diesel equivalent) while in use, which is a giant improvement (actually, about 600 percent) over traditional buses. And yes, that even includes the two-mode hybrid buses that GM pushed to market a few years ago. The accompanying infographic is certainly telling; compared to the 24 mile per gallon equivalent from the Proterra EcoRide BE-35 bus, the hybrid bus’s 4.5 miles per gallon looks pretty pathetic. And a traditional diesel bus’s 3.27 miles per gallon? Please!
Left unsaid is the fact that the electric buses are doubtless far quieter than noisy diesel buses, and far more pleasant to follow or stand next to in an urban environment. Until last year, I worked in Wilmington, Delaware across from Rodney Square, which is a public park. DART buses stopped next to the park to pick up and discharge passengers continuously throughout the day because it’s a convenient location in the center of town, but the diesel exhaust is actually killing the trees in the park. Electric buses would solve that problem.
GM’s investment is really quite modest, and it could well be little more than a PR play, but the irony of the company that killed the electric car (then brought it back to life) being the same company that killed inner-city trolleys, and may be helping to bring back something conceptually similar was just too delicious to not comment on.