© ElectriCity Gothenburg

Whispering buses

Route 55, the first route to be serviced by electric and hybrid buses in Gothenburg, will soon be put into retirement. “The mission of route 55 is completed now,” explains Peter Wannding, communication strategist for sustainable mobility at the city of Gothenburg. After five years of service that were a precious source of information to understand and perfect the integration of e-buses in the city’s public transport system, this test route, introduced within the framework of the ElectriCity project, will have done its job.

Winning people over

© ElectriCity Gothenburg

When the route was first introduced in 2015, there was some skepticism around the reliability of e-buses. Concerns varied from questioning the duration of batteries, to worrying they were too quiet and could be dangerous for pedestrians. Users were also concerned about the speed of the vehicles and that they would stall traffic. “It was a new technology, and people didn’t know about it,” says Peter Lindgren, coordinator of the ElectriCity project for the city of Gothenburg, “so they were a bit skeptical, some of them.”

It wasn’t long before route 55 won people over. “It worked brilliantly. No problems with the electricity, charging or anything,” declares Peter Lindgren. With no exhaust emissions and a very quiet ride, the e-buses have convinced users and drivers alike. “After driving an electric bus for a month, drivers stated that they’ll never go back to a diesel bus,” says Peter Lindgren “you don’t have low frequency noise or vibration, so after a day on an e-bus, drivers feel less tired compared to a day on a diesel bus.”

Västtrafik, the regional public transport authority, carried out a passenger survey in April of 2019, showing that Gothenburg residents are generally very satisfied with the electric buses. For example, 90% of passengers declare that the buses contribute to a better urban environment and are pleasant to ride in. The high departure frequency and short journey were also appreciated by respondents.

Innovate, test and validate

As a test journey, route 55 not only warmed residents to the idea of e-buses but allowed Västtrafik and the city of Gothenburg to study forward looking solutions. By placing two fast charging stations at both ends of the journey, the team was able to monitor the timeframe necessary for a full charge to complete the journey – 4 to 6 minutes at the stop for a 25 minute journey. “We really wanted to have all test buses run only on electricity,” explains Peter Lindgren, “so we took the time for charging, and this will be useful information for the future.”

Because the delay at the terminal is longer as buses are charging, on route 55 they tested an indoor stop. With winter and the comfort of users in mind, and taking advantage of the fact that an e-bus is quiet and has no emissions, the idea was to create a shared indoor space where the bus would come in to charge, and people would be comfortable in while waiting. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology together with a group of passengers came up with a design that mimics a living room space, with lots of green plants. Although appreciated, the space remains secondary as users wait for the bus to start inside the bus itself, or leave the stop upon arrival. But that’s what testing is all about and the city is now looking at introducing indoor stops in other locations where they could be more functional, for example in hospitals.

Indoor stop © ElectriCity Gothenburg

Data brings you further

The buses were also equipped with a geofencing system that controlled the speed of the bus in certain areas, for example close to pedestrian areas the bus would drive at walking pace, or it would drive at a slower but steady pace to follow the ‘green wave’ of traffic lights. “The vehicle is physically forced to maintain the speed,” explains Peter Lindgren. The geofencing also forced the hybrid buses to switch to electric in specific areas. “It is an interesting technology that we want to use in the future,” announces Peter Lindgren.

With the introduction of e-buses the city wanted to have a significant impact on air quality and noise pollution, so monitoring was a big part of the project. “We realised how important it is to combat the global problem of poor air quality, and good data is essential to taking the correct approach,” says Henrik Hagfeldt, a student at Chalmers University of Technology, which partnered with the municipality to work on the issue. The idea was to take advantage of the bus as a moving laboratory collecting data on particulate matter, air humidity and temperature among other things. “The sensors were quite simple and it was hard to calibrate them over time,” admits Peter Lindgren “but it’s interesting to analyse the air quality in the city in different ways. It would be nice to achieve it with moving sensors.”

More research is needed to perfect tools and analysis methods alike. “When we look at the noise issue, we know through our experience that e-buses are much more quiet than diesel buses,” says Peter Lindgren “but when we put the figures into our noise maps it doesn’t show a difference, due to the noise modelling algorithms.” For example, the models don’t take into consideration low frequency noise, or calculate only the noise average.

Success in numbers

Even though more research is needed, the project already achieved impressive results. After launching route 55, two high-capacity electric buses were added to a regular route running through the city centre in 2018, route EL16. Then Västtrafik renegotiated an ongoing procurement, and, with the collaboration of the operator, ended up switching 30 buses into e-busses.

In 2019, the public transport authority procured 157 new e-buses, one of the biggest procurements of this type in Europe. As a result, a third of Gothenburg’s city busses will be electric. Two additional procurements are foreseen to electrify the remaining buses in the city. “Without the experience from ElectriCity there wouldn’t have been electric buses in this first procurement,” comments Peter Lindgren “most of the knowledge collected in the project was used by the authorities to formulate the procurement.” This scale-up makes western Sweden the largest region in the Nordics when it comes to electric buses.

© ElectriCity Gothenburg

Road to fully electric mobility

However, the work is far from being over. The team in Gothenburg already has a long agenda of steps to continue the electrification of the city. More tests will be done around e-buses, for example studying long lasting tires that could make buses even more quiet or extending geofencing technology to create heatmaps around driving behaviors to make e-buses safer. And the city’s list doesn’t stop with e-buses.

“Electric vehicles are good for the city,” declares Peter Lindgren “we want to continue to electrify and get rid of all heavy diesel engines within the city boundaries.” In its effort to reduce noise and air pollution the city has introduced two e-trucks already taking care of collecting waste and making deliveries; it has pre-started a pilot project on a small construction site with electric construction machines; and e-ferries are also in the pipeline. “We proved that it works for buses, so now we move on to all other heavy vehicles running in the city,” says Peter Lindgren.

These changes come with major challenges. First of all, in terms of charging infrastructure. “The more things we add, the more difficult the charging infrastructure will be,” explains Peter Lindgren “and the city wants to have a say on how this infrastructure is built, making sure it serves the users.” For example, Gothenburg’s existing charging infrastructure is not adapted to heavy vehicles, with currently only one high power charging station.

Another challenge is linked to the market offer. “Today there are a great number of manufactures for e-buses,” says Peter Lindgren “but when we come to trucks there are very few, and for construction vehicles there are more or less none.” The market is under pressure to keep up with the e-revolution, it needs to restructure and re-educate its workforce fast. “Gothenburg has launched a re-education programme,” reveals Peter Lindgren, “for this massive change to be done we need to re-educate a lot of people.”

Gothenburg’s electrification efforts will contribute to reaching the target of 90% reduction of emissions linked to traffic by 2030, compared to 2010. The target is part of the city’s proposed new environmental programme. “Our experts have made some calculations, and even if we electrify our transport system at the pace that we are already doing it will not be enough,” confesses Peter Wannding “in parallel we have to reduce traffic in the city.”

“It’s a very ambitious target,” says Peter Wannding, and with the pressure of the covid-19 crisis who knows what the future of transport will look like in ten years? One thing is for sure, Gothenburg is putting its energy into electricity.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer