June 10, 2009

Hybrid Buses Trying To Earn Their Worth

A public transportation assembly in Vienna this week was the stage for the introduction of fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly hybrid buses, the AFP reported. 

Although the buses were met with much favor, some attention needs to be directed towards becoming more cost-effective before they can be produced on a mass scale.

Manufacturers say the hybrid diesel-electric bus is paving the way for future automobiles.

Due to power generated during braking, fuel consumption is reduced by 20 to 30 percent and CO2 emissions decreased about the same.

"Eventually, there won't be any reason to drive with a traditional diesel anymore," said Per-Martin Johansson, a spokesman for Swedish carmaker Volvo, the second leader in the world after selling 10,000 buses last year.

Johansson, who spoke at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) world congress ending Thursday, said that "Besides the immediate environmental benefit, the 40-percent premium is redeemed within five to seven years."

Poland's Solaris and Belgium's Vanhool were the first to launch hybrid buses, but it wasn't until just recently that they started gaining momentum.  But Volvo and German-made Daimler, the world leader with 42,000 buses sold in 2008, are paving the way now with promises to begin mass production within a year, while an another German company, Man, is projecting a 2011 date. 

However, orders are still few in Europe.  Vanhool is the only company who has began mass-producing because of a request received by the Belgian public transportation company VVM for 79 hybrid buses.

Solaris anticipates to follow in these footsteps with "contracts for 20 to 30 units," informed spokesman Mateusz Figaszewski.

In 2006, the Polish company started selling its model and has recently sold seven more in Paris and Strasbourg, France. 

Meanwhile, those late-coming, larger car companies are stuck with the leftovers.  Volvo sold London six red, double-decker hybrid buses, while Sweden's Scania has sold six more to Stockholm. 

During this tight economic crisis, public transportation companies are hesitant to invest largely in a technology with such a high starting price, experts say. 

"Hybrid buses will only really take off with governmental help," said Man spokesman Thorsten Wagner.

"With that, this technology can take over 50 percent of the market within five or 10 years. Without, it probably won't surpass 20 percent and will only catch on in places that want to appear environmentally-friendly," he said.

In North America this is an exception, as hybrid buses have been utilized for the past decade.  For instance, Daimler Buses has already sold 1,700 units through its Orion branch and an additional 1,100 on order. 

But, "This market is completely distinctive," said Daimler Bus director Hartmut Schick. 

Some manufacturers have already developed an even more expensive bus, the hydrogen hybrid bus, but this vehicle may never move on from its trial product stage. 

Daimler presented a third-generation of this model with fuel cell at the UITP congress.  This version is still more costly than a diesel bus, making it quite hard to regain the cost. 

Since 2003, Daimler has sold nearly 30 hydrogen prototypes, and now hopes to sell 30 more.  Vanhool has indicated it has received 16 orders from the United States. 

"In this case, it's not about financial reasoning but about paving the way for the future," Schick said.

Man, which abandoned hydrogen buses after selling about 15 in Germany, opposes this logic.

"At this point, we don't see a solution to the question of cost-efficiency and the environmental impact of hydrogen production," Wagner said.

Solaris also believes there is no reason for investing in such intricate technology. 

"The bus of the future will be entirely electric, after batteries have been perfected. It's as simple as that," Figaszewski said. "Even the diesel hybrid is bound to disappear."


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