COMMENT: The future is now

The second ITT Hub exhibition at Farnborough was starred not so much with the display of electric vehicles as the quality of the networking.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a part of this was the ‘post-Covid effect’ – the visitors were just pleased to be able to enjoy a big show without masks or distancing, for the first time for two years. The other catalyst was that there is so much to talk about at the moment.

The clock is ticking on future fuels, with the diesel vehicles being sold now just ten years old when the government’s ban on new diesel buses comes into force. The date for coaches to go zero emission is still under discussion, but you can bet that it will either coincide or be very shortly after buses go all-electric.

It seems to be an absolute certainty that electric drivetrains will be the only option, whether powered purely by batteries or with range-extending hydrogen fuel cells. And although we all know the additional cost that entails, there are two aspects of running electric vehicles which are too rarely considered.

Sitting right over a diesel engine has never been the passengers’ choice because of the noise

The first is passenger comfort. For the first time, the back seats of a bus won’t necessarily be filled only with kids chattering very loudly. Sitting right over a diesel engine has never been the passengers’ choice because of the noise. It’s not just the engine and diff, either; vibration from the drivetrain gets pretty much everything rattling on any bus over five years old.

Riding aboard electric buses is, by comparison, bliss. Drivers absolutely love them, not least for their ‘torque all the time’ power characteristics, simplicity and comfort. I’ve also had a ride in Yutong’s electric coach. It, too, is whisper-quiet.

The second aspect of running electric vehicles rarely discussed is reliability. If you were at the show, you’d have heard David West say that, in four years, he has made precisely no repairs to his Yutongs. None. Not even brake pads. We’re hearing similar feedback from bus operators.

That should come as no surprise. The industry will be exchanging more than 2,000 moving parts in the drivetrain to a number you can count on your fingers. No oil and filter changes. No belts. No coolant to leak. No fuel pumps. You may like to rethink that high investment cost in this context.

One fuel capable of very significantly reducing ‘well to wheel’ carbon emissions doesn’t seem to be on the radar of government. Hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) made from used cooking oil and other waste feedstock can be used instead of diesel with no changes at all. It’s not fossil fuel, so we are not ‘unlocking’ carbon which has been inert for millions of years.

It’s time for HVO to figure as an interim fuel, and the industry’s trade associations should, I think, take up the challenge.

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