Electric-powered school buses may help pave the road to cleaner travel


When a group of Southern California elementary students hop on the bus tomorrow to start their journey to school, they will participate in what some believe will be a historic experiment in public transportation.

The bright yellow bus will look pretty much like any other, but it will sound different and that's a clue to what makes this vehicle unique from all the others on the road.

Instead of the familiar roar of a diesel engine, the bus will let out a gentle hum when the driver stomps down on the acceleration pedal. There will be no emissions from the tailpipe. In fact, there is no tailpipe.

The bus is powered by a 230-horsepower electric motor built by workers at the Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s Electronic Systems division in Linthicum.

The bus -- the first ever built from the start as an electric vehicle -- is a product of a partnership between Westinghouse and Blue Bird Corp. of Macon, Ga., the world's largest manufacturer of school buses.

Westinghouse teamed with Blue Bird last summer, hoping to reduce its dependence on a shrinking defense budget by applying its technology in electronics to new markets.

Joseph Schuster, a marketing manager with Westinghouse's electric vehicle program, said the company expects half of the nation's bus fleet -- school buses and transit vehicles -- will be electric powered by the turn of the century.

Mr. Schuster said there are about 36,000 school buses on the road, nearly 10 times the number of transit buses, which is why Westinghouse joined Blue Bird and entered the market.

"Blue Bird," he said, "makes more than half of the school buses built in this country."

Westinghouse entered the electric vehicle industry in 1991 when it joined Chrysler Corp. on the development of an electric vehicle that the two companies hope will be commercially viable by the late 1990s.

The two companies are expected to invest about $10 million in developing a vehicle that can travel as fast as 75 miles per hour and cover 200 miles between recharges.

Earlier this year Chrysler said it will offer electric minivans,

powered by Westinghouse motors, for sale in California in 1998.

But Mr. Schuster said the current technology seems better suited for buses than cars.

He said the price of the batteries as a percent of the total vehicle cost is less for a bus than for a car. Because buses can carry more batteries the distance they can travel is greatly enhanced. And as a result of their operation over fixed routes and times, it is easier to schedule the time needed to recharge its batteries.

Based on early test reports from the Antelope Valley School Transportation Agency, which bought the Blue Bird/Westinghouse bus, the two companies have reason to be optimistic.

"It's very promising," Kenneth R. McCoy, chief executive of Antelope Valley, said of the bus it is testing over a 60-mile route near Lancaster, Calif.

"It doesn't pollute and its saves money over the long haul," Mr. McCoy added.

His optimism is based on preliminary results that show the operating cost of the electric bus to be 11 cents a mile -- about one third the costs of other buses in the Antelope Valley fleet using methanol, and 3 cents a mile less than those with diesel motors.

But what happens when it's time to replace the 112 lead acid batteries that cost $100 each? Mr. McCoy said his data is not complete, but he thinks the battery replacement cost can be offset by reduced maintenance.

"California law," he explained, "requires an inspection of each bus and maintenance every 45 days or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first. With the electric bus there is no radiator to repair, no antifreeze, no transmission, no air filters, no oil filter, no exhaust system to replace.

"We think the batteries will last five years and the cost will be offset in reduced maintenance," Mr. McCoy said.

Another major factor in the development of electric vehicles is California's law requiring that by 1998 2 percent of the vehicles offered there by major automakers must emit no pollution.

The battery-powered bus may also be the world's most expensive school bus. Built at a cost of $260,000, the vehicle was funded by a grant from the state's air quality control office and is being used to test the feasibility of electric-powered vehicles.

The cost is more than double the $110,000 price tag on a comparable diesel-powered bus, but the price will drop as the vehicle goes into mass production, said Roland Gray, a spokesman for Blue Bird.

With higher rates of production, he said, the electric bus will cost only about 20 percent more than one powered by a diesel engine.

Mr. McCoy said he is using the electric bus on a 60-mile route and it is recharged each night. It takes about eight hours to bring the batteries back to full strength.

He said the maximum range is 80 miles. This would allow it to be used on about a third of the school bus routes in the country.

"And if they double or triple the range, which everybody thinks will happen in next few years," he said, "it will cover about 80 percent of the routes."

Antelope operates a fleet of 160 buses. While there is no money in the budget to buy new buses this year, Mr. McCoy said that when funds are available he will be adding more battery-powered units to his fleet.

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