A Glimpse Into The Future

The first questions are among the most important.

Can the operating and maintenance savings for an all-electric bus overcome its initial price tag?

Will an all-electric bus have enough range and performance for normal HRT revenue service?

And can the current HRT bus infrastructure accommodate this new technology?

The answers to these questions and others have begun to unfold over the past 2 years and will continue to evolve in to late December of 2020 when HRT takes full possession of six new all-electric buses as part of the agency’s test to see if these modern marvels are up to the task of actual work in Hampton Roads.

In addition to the buses, HRT also is acquiring seven charging stations that will be placed on the ground level of the 18th Street parking garage and maintenance shop in Norfolk, the only location that could easily accommodate the new equipment.

“After we take possession of the buses there will be time devoted to operator and maintenance training, then commissioning and testing. I would anticipate from the time they first arrive that we will have 60 to 90 days to get the buses into service.”

— Mike Perez, HRT’s Operations and Project and Contract Administrator

If all goes well in manufacturing, it will be late winter or early spring 2021 before we see the new equipment on city streets. The expectation now is that the buses will be assigned to a specific route and not distributed randomly as is done with new diesel buses.

The total project cost is projected at $7.8 million with money coming from federal, state sources including funds derived from the national VW settlement that arose after the company was found to have violated clean air regulations on its vehicles. The money including workforce development support, charging infrastructure, facility design work.

Buses cost about $975,000 each, more than diesel buses, but they are expected to cost less to maintain over the vehicle’s life cycle.

HRT has tried battery-powered buses before, notably with the Norfolk Electric Transit program that operated along downtown Norfolk streets. Those buses, now likely in a scrap yard somewhere, have about as much in common with the modern version as your bicycle does with the space shuttle.

Battery technology, on-board computer systems, carbon fiber body work have transformed what’s possible in an all-electric vehicle. The new version of the 40-foot bus can easily carry a full load of passengers, as a test model did in during a recent visit, and they have an unusual feature not seen on diesel buses. Some, all-electrics have rear windows.

Efficient roof top air conditioning and a compact electric drive train that free up a large amount of space, normally occupied by bulky engine components make room for a rear window. Even standing behind a running electric bus is disconcerting as they are as quiet as a Prius.

As the planning continues for the all-electric equipment, HRT is taking another step forward with a look at autonomous buses.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) has joined a national consortium of transit agencies to explore whether autonomous buses can be deployed in select areas of the country, including Hampton Roads.

Autonomous buses are technologically advanced vehicles that can run with either a passive human attendant, or with a fully automated operating system. No full-sized autonomous buses are in use today but the technology that could allow them is developing quickly.

The Automated Bus Consortium (ABC) is being overseen by AECOM, one of the nation’s leading design and engineering firms. AECOM has obtained commitments from 12 agencies, including HRT, to serve as the consortium’s founding members and to jointly make decisions.

This first-of-its-kind approach may accelerate the deployment of autonomous transit technologies by combining the purchasing power and collaborative decision-making of cooperating agencies.

To advance understanding and limitations of the technology, the effort will bring together agencies that operate in different climates and unique topographies, from the flat deserts of the American southwest to flood-prone Hampton Roads where congestion and crowded tunnels are common.

Part of the reason for the pilot program is to demonstrate that automated bus technology can navigate and operate reliably in these environments. The consortium will define the best pilot regions and routes, while developing operating plans and automated bus specifications. It also will investigate the regulatory changes necessary for deployment of these vehicles.

The consortium hopes eventually to procure jointly 75-100 automated, full-sized buses. It is not yet known how many would be deployed in Hampton Roads or if HRT would move forward into part the program that includes the purchase of vehicles.

Even if HRT qualifies for some buses, they would be in limited use. The vast majority of HRT’s bus fleet will remain operated by men and women behind the wheel for the foreseeable future.

“This is an exciting time for public transportation. Leveraging emergent technologies in automation may lead to greater operating efficiency while also enhancing the customer experience. We also hope this will help us assess our training needs as the technology evolves.”

William Harrell, President and CEO of HRT

Autonomous transit vehicles are being used in limited circumstances and select locations, typically as smaller, shuttle type vehicles. The research will help HRT determine if the technology is right for the Hampton Roads before committing financial resources to purchase these buses.

The consortium will also study the federal, state, and local regulatory framework to understand what changes are needed to allow autonomous vehicles to safely operate on the streets and highways. Currently, Virginia law does not allow fully autonomous vehicles to be operated without an attendant present.