Ryan Popple, a former Tesla senior finance analyst, still drives the company’s product, a Model S P85. Sure, he loves to go fast, but he also likes the practicality.

“I figured out how to put a rear-mounted hitch on it,” Popple said. “The car seats five and is super-efficient for transporting kids and mountain bikes — I can put a bike rack on it, and backpacks and gear in it. It’s the perfect car for me. The only problem I’ve had is a shudder that was solved by tightening the motor mounts.”

Not only is his car Tesla-branded, but so is his experience. As Bloomberg reported, Popple (who joined Tesla in 2007) “was part of the small team that spent months driving hard bargains with parts makers and simplifying the supply chain. Eventually, per-car costs fell enough to keep the company in business…”

Proterra buses

Proterra uses overhead docking for charging. (Photo: Proterra)

Ryan Popple ProterraFast forward to 2015, and Popple is the CEO of a company that may be less glamorous than Tesla, but it’s just as important for the future of electric transportation. Public transit is a $58 billion industry in America, with 400,000 employees. People travel more than five billion miles annually by bus in the U.S. That’s a lot of diesel exhaust.

By doing what he did at Tesla, including driving hard bargains, South Carolina-based Proterra (which is also opening a California factory) has just rolled out a 77-passenger electric Catalyst bus that’s nearly six times more efficient than the industry standard. Diesel transit buses average 3.86 mpg; the 40-foot, lightweight carbon fiber Catalyst gets the equivalent of 22 mpg (expressed as MPGe). “I think we will reach 30 mpg equivalent in a few years,” Popple said.

The bus underwent federal certification at the federal Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center, and it broke records for efficiency, gradeability, weight and acceleration (zero to 20 in 6.7 seconds). Range depends on the size of the battery pack, between 53 and 131 kilowatt hours, but 180 miles is possible.

One of the lessons I learned at Tesla is to allow the engineering team to do real engineering, not project management,” Popple said. “We tear parts and components down to figure out how to make them ourselves. Every subsystem gets a post-it note asking how much it would cost—it’s amazing how much markup there is in this cost-plus business. No wonder it’s hard to be innovative when you push control down to your Tier 1 suppliers.”

Proterra bus

The Catalyst body, built of lightweight composites, weighs in at a svelte 27,000 pounds. (Photo: Proterra

The Catalyst, which can charge in short bursts from overhead wires, will be shipping in July to transit agencies in the Los Angeles Metro area (which has 15 percent of all the bus orders in the country), Seattle, Louisville, Stockton, Lexington and Duluth. A huge boost for the electric bus market would be a California Air Resources Board purchase requirement, currently on hold, that would demand purchase of a certain number of zero-emission buses. “California is our largest market,” Popple said. “The state’s Air Resources Board has said all transit buses will be zero emission by 2040. That sends signals.”

The 150,000-square-foot California factory, in City of Industry, will open September 1 and start shipping the first quarter of 2016. It’s got orders through the end of next year, and has so far sold 100 vehicles to 14 transit agencies. That doesn’t mean that Proterra is profitable yet, though it’s had cash-positive quarters.

Innovation is expensive, and the Catalyst costs more than double its diesel equivalent. But the payback times are shortening, and cities and states are creating lucrative subsidies for electric buses An EV bus market currently projected by TechNavio as $9.2 billion is expected to grow to 19.5 billion by 2018. Proterra is up against some well-funded giants, such as China’s BYD and Germany’s Siemens in the EV bus space, but with such growth ahead all boats (or buses) should be floated.

Here's the Proterra bus on video:

Related on MNN:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.