Wirelessly charged, all-electric bus route is first for UK

Plans have been unveiled for the UK’s first wirelessly charged, all-electric bus route using vehicles that can match the capabilities of diesel models.

British engineering company Arup and Northern Irish manufacturer Wrightbus are among the organisations that today signed a five-year agreement to run the trial route in Milton Keynes, in anticipation of the end of a government bus fuel subsidy that will make electric vehicles more attractive.

The scheme, which is led by a partnership between Arup and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, is designed to show that using wireless charging technology to recharge the electric buses throughout the day would allow them to fully replace diesel ones.

Prof John Miles of Cambridge University, who initiated the project and is Arup’s lead on it, told The Engineer that this would be the first time an established diesel bus route had been completely electrified.

‘People have been running electric buses on urban routes for quite a few years but they’ve always put a couple on a route that is already well served by diesel buses and when they run out of puff they simply get covered by more diesel buses,’ he said.

‘[We want to show that] you can put a fleet of electric buses on the ground and expect them to work the same hours and the same hardship routes you would expect a diesel bus to work.

‘[We also want to prove that] when you’ve done all that, it’s marginally cheaper to run electric buses than the diesels. If you can prove that then we believe that the transition afterwards to electric buses will be natural.’

The trial will involve installing wireless charging technology from German company Conductix-Wampfler at three points along a bus route in Milton Keynes from June 2013, allowing the new electric buses to recharge quickly during the timetabled 10-minute driver changeover time.

These 10-minute charges should replenish around two-thirds of the energy used on the bus’s route. By topping up the charge throughout the day, the bus should be able to complete an entire timetable, which could be up to 20 hours’ long in busy urban areas, without the need for a prohibitively expensive and heavy battery.

The partners say replacing the existing diesel buses should remove around 500 tonnes of tailpipe CO2 emissions a year, as well as 45 tonnes of other noxious tailpipe emissions. The route currently transports more than 775,000 passengers a year over a total of 450,000 miles.

Wireless technology is key to charging the battery in such short periods of time because it removes the need for a large, heavy cable that would slow the process down considerably, said Miles.

He added that while electric buses were generally twice as expensive to buy as diesel ones, the running and fuel costs should be much lower, saving around £12,000 to £15,000 a year.

‘At today’s prices, you cut the fuel costs to about a third. But the government is actually withdrawing an operating grant so bus operators face diesel prices that will become the same as the pump price. And when you get to that point in four or five years then you’re talking about a quarter of the costs.’

The trial will run until 2017 in order to collect enough to data to demonstrate the economic viability of low-carbon public transport, which the partners hope could kick-start electric bus projects in other towns and cities worldwide.

The scheme is run by Mitsui and Arup’s joint venture MBK Arup Sustainable Projects (MASP) and also involves Western Power Distribution, Chargemaster, Scottish and Southern Energy and Milton Keynes Council.