electric school bus

The fully electric SST-e school bus. (Photo: PRNewsFoto/Motiv Power Systems)

American school buses have long run on diesel, pumping out toxic exhaust around children who are particularly at risk from such fumes. They also burn up costly, carbon-emitting fuel as they cruise around a limited area, often idling while kids get on and off.

All this makes school buses ideal candidates for electric motors, since they tend to idle and would rarely need to drive very far from a central charging station. Yet while a variety of fully electric cars are now available, the U.S. still has no all-electric school buses.

That may be about to change, however, thanks to two U.S. companies that have teamed up to make an electric bus for Kings Canyon Unified School District in central California. If it hits the road on schedule, it could be the country's first fully electric school bus. New York-based Trans Tech already developed one in 2011 that never went into service, but now its partnership with California's Motiv Power Systems is reviving the effort.

"This is Motiv's first electric school bus, and we anticipate that it will be the first electric bus to be certified and used as a school bus," a Motiv representative tells MNN by email. "The school district who bought this bus, Kings Canyon Unified, plans to put it in routes before the end of the year. No electric school bus has ever been put into operation before."

Named SST-e, the Type A school bus will feature "battery-agnostic" design, which means it isn't wedded to any brand or type of battery, letting the bus adapt over time.

"[I]t 'future-proofs' fleets against changes in the battery market, such as discontinued batteries or future improved technology," Motiv CEO Jim Castelaz says in a press release. "This makes a Motiv-equipped bus the most flexible and customizable all-electric powertrain for trucks on the market. We are thrilled the ePCS [electric powertrain control system] will be assisting schools to get the most out of their transportation dollars, while at the same time educating children on clean transportation."

The SST-e seats up to 32 students, according to the press release, or 24 students and one wheelchair. Districts can choose a range limit of 80 or 100 miles, depending on how many battery packs the bus holds, while fast-charging technology lets the bus reach 50 percent charge in less than an hour and full charge in 8 hours. The SST-e also comes with telemetry systems, providing real-time route data and preventive maintenance reports.

The bus isn't cheap; it costs around $175,000, while conventional Type A buses are often less than $80,000. But it can also help school districts save thousands of dollars every year in fuel and maintenance costs, its developers say, and prices should fall if it manages to open up a broader U.S. market for electric school buses.

"An electric bus can save a school district about 16 gallons of fuel a day, or around $11,000 in fuel savings over a year, not to mention maintenance savings," Trans Tech president John Phraner says in a statement. "We are very excited to continue to help school districts reduce their transportation budgets and are committed to opening the market for the all-electric school bus."

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