The long road

Environment Business talks to Steve Grosvenor about the pitfalls Environmental Transportation Systems faces getting a hybrid bus engine to market

Carbon dioxide emissions from transport are rising steadily, and with emissions from industry falling, vehicle emissions are an increasingly important component of the UK's carbon footprint - especially if Kyoto and other targets are to be met. Government has failed to curb car use, and has passed the buck to local authorities, which are trying to get buses with fuel cells and hybrid drives onto the road.

However, the British companies designing, developing and building these vehicles are finding that the road to low-emission success is a long and winding one. Gaining funding, identifying investors, creating partnerships and convincing bus operators of the suitability of a new design - not to mention overcoming the shortcomings of modern buses - all have to be dealt with for progress to be made. Environmental Transportation Systems is run by a group of engineers who came into the low emission vehicle business through Val Dare Bryan, who was instrumental in the development of the Denver EcoMark CNG Hybrid - the model with the most hybrids in full service.

Finding funding

They set out to attempt a UK-based hybrid programme, and began the search for a partner to contribute the bodywork to the proposed new chassis, and sufficient government funding to make the new engine a success.

East Lancashire Coachbuilders was identified early on as an ideal partner - it is one of the few small and independent coachbuilders in the UK. The company agreed to collaborate in bringing a new double-decker hybrid bus to the market.

The Energy Saving Trust was approached for funding, and after negotiations lasting around six months, ETS was awarded a grant of £287,000 and the project was underway. Or so the team thought. Three and a half weeks later the grant offer was retracted. It was to be another nine months of negotiation with both EST and the Department for Transport before they were re-awarded a grant of £430,000.

This had cost the project nearly a year. Beating any opposition to the market would be more of a challenge than they had previously thought. "The grant funding was awarded on the basis that a partner would be identified who would match the value of the grant," according to director Steve Grosvenor. "However, this requirement seemed to us a little remote at the time; so, anxious to get started, we began the design."

The two working directors - Grosvenor and Marcus Allard - established that most conventional bus chassis were not engineered to the standard that might be expected. "On closer examination it was obvious that modern buses are considerably heavier than old ones," Grosvenor says.

The Routemaster, London's famous jump-on, jump-off double-decker, was designed in the fifties. Unladen, it weighs 7.5 tonnes, compared with a typical modern vehicle of similar capacity, with an unladen weight of 11.5 tonnes. "This, seemed inexcusable in an age of lightweight materials," Grosvenor says, pointing out that on a typical London bus route such as the 159 which runs from Streatham to Baker Street, the fuel consumption of a vehicle is almost directly proportional to its laden weight.

"Carbon dioxide emissions are proportional to the fuel consumed," says Grosvenor. "Therefore, assuming a typical passenger load of 3.5 tonnes, a CO2 reduction of 27% may be achieved by the use of high quality 1950s engineering alone; without the need for hybrid or fuel cell technology." The team set out to re-engineer the basic bus chassis; while incorporating an efficient hybrid propulsion system in order to provide the highest possible fuel efficiency.

Computerised models were created for all aspects of the vehicle design and performance. Also, a performance model was created to predict fuel consumption and emissions for any mapped potential bus route. This gives ETS the ability to precisely tune the system - including battery configuration and control software - to optimise performance.

Onto the market

The company now has a potential order, but it is difficult to sell bus operators on the idea of a completely new concept vehicle - including both chassis and propulsion system. There may, therefore, be some compromise, for example the use of an existing chassis to demonstrate the operation of the hybrid drive. On this basis the company began negotiations with Transbus International - the largest manufacturer of chassis and bodies in the UK. These carried on for a period of four months, but the Mayflower group, of which Transbus was a part, went into administration.

ETS is now in negotiations with another manufacturer and despite the setbacks, the company is convinced it can work more quickly than its competitors. However, its experience shows that a lot more needs to be done to make environmental transport policies a success.


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