Alternative drives were prominent at IAA

doug jack
Doug Jack

The 66th IAA Exhibition took place in the northern German city of Hannover in September. Fortunately, the weather in Hannover was still quite warm and there wasn’t a drop of rain. This vast event is almost certainly the largest commercial vehicle exhibition in the world, with products ranging from vans, minibuses, buses and coaches, up to the heaviest trucks and trailers. Additionally, hundreds of component and service suppliers were promoting their products.

Most exhibits are housed in large halls, but some vehicles were shown outside. The exhibition grounds were large. with a frequent internal service operating 40- and 47-foot low-floor buses that used a variety of diesel, hybrid, gas and fuel cell power.

Electromobility was a dominant theme. Even though emissions from the latest diesel engines are very low, there is a tendency among politicians to demonize diesel. Several countries are talking about introducing legislation so that in 10 to 15 years, only zero-emission vehicles will be allowed into service, with a focus on those circulating in urban centers.

Hartmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses, predicted that by 2030, at least 70 percent of sales of new city buses in Europe would be zero-emission.

Another senior executive remarked that timing is critical with the development of electrically powered vehicles. A company that starts too soon can be overtaken by advances in technology and lose a lot of money. A company that starts too late can lose its customers to competitors.

The general consensus is that battery technology continues to improve. Greater operating ranges are being achieved without any increase in weight or size. Prices are coming down because of greater competition among suppliers. There is more confidence and willingness to supply batteries on mileage contracts, which will appeal to bus fleet accountants.

The European “Bus of the Year 2017”.
The European “Bus of the Year 2017”.

Håkan Agnevall, president of Volvo Buses, is one of the great promoters of electric traction. His company cleverly displayed the progressive development with a line-up of hybrid, electric-hybrid and all-electric buses. Volvo believes in carrying relatively small batteries that need to be charged at each end of a route. They have developed the charging system so that the only components on the roof of a bus are a pair of parallel metal receivers, each about four feet long and nearly three feet apart. A pantograph descends from the overhead gantry whenever needed to connect with them for fast charging.

Although the initial price of an electric bus is substantially higher than a diesel vehicle, the payback period can be calculated because electricity is always less expensive than diesel. The length of payback can, of course, vary depending on the levels of taxation on diesel. European interest rates are at an all-time low and that helps with promotion.

Electrical infrastructure can be a problem, especially if the network is owned by one company and the electricity is supplied by another. There are considerable costs in supplying cables to a depot where up to 100 vehicles can require simultaneous overnight charging.

VDL uses composites to help reduce weight.
VDL uses composites to help reduce weight.

Volvo’s response to that problem is to have recharging gantries at each end of a route, scattered around the city. However, this solution is unsuitable for larger cities, most of which favor vehicles that have sufficient range for a full day’s operation with overnight recharging.

Every year, a panel of leading trade journalists (one each from around 20 European countries), carries out rigorous testing and vote for the bus or coach of the year. It was good to see Solaris of Poland lift the coveted “Bus of the Year 2017” trophy, as this was the first time a 40-foot low-floor all-electric bus won the award. Some of you may recall Solaris of Poland Chief Executive, Andreas Strecker, who spent several years in North America.

For the last 20 years, there has been talk in Europe about fuel cell buses coming into volume production. Although zero-emissions are an attractive target, the price is still commercially unrealistic. Mercedes-Benz currently has around two dozen third generation fuel cell buses running in Germany, Italy and Switzerland with excellent reliability. Van Hool has built quite a number but all the fuel cell buses in service have required substantial subsidies towards the purchase price.

Mercedes-Benz CityPilot autonomous bus.
Mercedes-Benz CityPilot autonomous bus.

Mercedes-Benz has already said that it is developing its next generation city bus platform which will be capable of taking diesel, gas, hybrid, electric or fuel cell drive systems. The company has the benefit of being able to work with other divisions of the Daimler Group, helping it to keep development costs and prices down.

The smallest low-floor electric bus in IAA, the Jest, built by Karsan, a major Turkish manufacturer, was only 19 feet long. Karsan has already built around 5,000 diesel versions of the Jest which has front wheel drive and a low floor, with only one step above the ground between the axles.

BYD showed a standard 40-foot city bus and also an all-electric coach of the same length.

MAN is the other major German bus manufacturer. One exhibit came from Brazil with a Marcopolo body and a bold slogan in the rear window: “100% Sugercane diesel” — an unheard of fuel in Europe.

Another MAN exhibit featured an articulated full low-floor city bus with a standard diesel engine and Siemens hybrid drive system. A fuel cell outside the bus is designed as a range extender. In the front section, there is a pantograph beneath an overhead charging unit, and outside of the front of the vehicle a typical plug-in unit allows overnight recharging.

These current collectors sit on the roof of Volvo’s electric bus.
These current collectors sit on the roof of Volvo’s electric bus.

This combination perplexed many visitors until MAN explained that it is a concept vehicle showing various alternatives the company can offer.

Outside the halls there was a demonstration area and a test circuit where visitors could sample a variety of electric and fuel cell buses; most of them were built by relatively small manufacturers. For instance, Ursus, a major Polish maker of agricultural tractors and other equipment, recently built 40 trolleybuses for its home city of Lublin. Ursus showed a 40-foot low-floor electric bus that used electric motors in the rear wheel hubs by a German company, Ziehl-Abegg.

A 40-foot bus by Solbus, a small-scale Polish builder, was fitted with fuel cells from HyMove of the Netherlands. The bus was borrowed back from Syntus, one of the main bus fleets in that country.

Iveco BAE Systems hybrid bus.
Iveco BAE Systems hybrid bus.

Electromobility is a popular subject in the Netherlands, and VDL Bus & Coach will soon start delivering 43 all-electric articulated city buses to its home city of Eindhoven.

Scania showed examples of its new Interlink range of coaches. One low-deck model claims to be the first interurban bus capable of running on biogas.

There was quite a lot of talk about autonomous buses, and other forms of transport. The technology exists to convert vehicles but there are many legislative and insurance issues that will need to be resolved before they become a reality. There is also the very important element of public confidence. Watch for further developments.


Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.