As regular Charged readers know, dozens of cities in North America and Europe (and a couple in South America) are gradually adding electric buses to their fleets. But Western transit agencies are doing small-scale pilots. New York City’s MTA has 10 fully electric buses in service, and another 15 on order, out of a total fleet of 5,700 (it also has 1,700 hybrid buses).
Meanwhile, cities in China have been ordering e-buses by the thousand for some time. According to a recent report from BloombergNEF, there were around 425,000 battery-electric buses in service around the world at the end of 2018, and some 421,000 of those were in China (18% of the country’s total bus fleet). Europe had around 2,250.
According to BNEF’s estimates, by 2025, China will have more than 600,000 municipal e-buses in service, and the US will have about 5,000.
China’s authoritarian government is able to take a top-down approach to accelerating electrification: it imposes EV mandates, subsidizes manufacturers and encourages policy competition among cities. The US does none of these things on a federal level, although EV-friendly California plans to require all new buses to be zero-emission beginning in 2029. The EU will begin to phase in zero-emission requirements in 2025.
“There’s no industrial policy in the US for e-buses,” said BNEF Analyst Nick Albanese. “So unless the US manages to become a big exporter of e-buses, China will continue to stand apart.”
Scale isn’t everything, however. Bloomberg points out that the US still has an edge in technology. Several companies are building e-buses in North America. “While Chinese companies get more support, the best electric vehicles have been engineered and manufactured by American companies,” said Ryan Popple, the CEO of Proterra, a rapidly growing e-bus builder.
Chinese EV giant BYD is building electric buses in California. The company sells some 30,000 plug-in vehicles every month in China, and its buses are in service in about 300 cities around the world. BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu told Bloomberg that, in China, government policy was to electrify public transport first. “In the West, it’s quite the opposite. The subsidies are primarily to private vehicles, not public transportation,” said Wang. “We propose to governments that they need to learn from China’s example of a staged transition.”