City slicker: Volvo’s bus rides the hybrid wave12 April 2013
Having won plaudits when it was unveiled last year, the Volvo 7900 Hybrid bus remains in demand among operators, with work ongoing on a new articulated model. Ross Davies catches up with environmental director Edward Jobson to discuss fuel and cost incentives, greener consciences and the year when “hybrid bus technology became the preferred choice”.
When Urban Transport Agenda spoke to environmental director Edward Jobson last summer, Volvo had just rolled out a new fleet of 25 hybrid buses on the streets of Gothenburg. The 7900 Hybrid came off the assembly line with the aim of improving environmental performance, driveability, fuel economy and reliability.
At the time of writing, sales of the 7900 Hybrid have passed 1,000, in spite of reported lethargy across the global bus market in 2012, as Europe and the US continue to be hit hard by the unfavourable economic climate.
However, it would seem that the overriding incentive for operators to reduce fuel costs and promote their green credentials - the two are hardly mutually exclusive - has resulted in an extant rise in demand for hybrid transport systems in cities across the world.
The 7900 Hybrid uses 39% less fuel and allows a reduction of up to 50% in nitrogen oxides and particles compared with diesel versions. This is complemented by a weight reduction of approximately 500kg.
"Fuel savings remain the number one benefit for operators," says Jobson, Volvo's environmental director. "That's definitely the most straightforward answer I can give as to why we've achieved such sales over the last six months or so - it's the economic driver that convinces most of our customers."
Clearly buoyed by the success of the 7900 Hybrid, Volvo has subsequently launched the model across Europe, with target regions including Norway, Switzerland and Luxembourg. According to Jobson, the group will look to consolidate its footprint further with a "global hybrid roll-out that could well include South America as a potential market". Moreover, the fleet has been specifically tailored to inner-city and suburban traffic conditions.
"One of the strengths of the Hybrid 7900 is that it is very versatile, offering savings in all types of traffic," explains Jobson. "When you look at the savings per hour - an important metric for operators - it is well suited to anything from gridlock in London to commuter traffic in northern Sweden. However, we are looking at all types of traffic - this has been a major change for us."
Electrification and aesthetics
A key development in the hybrid bus market of late has been the move towards electric mobility, as well as the use of plug-ins, by which a bus's batteries are recharged via the mains grid; Volvo has adapted its investment strategy accordingly.
"We have spent a great deal of time looking into plug-in hybrids," explains Jobson. "We are looking to offer them in parallel with normal hybrid sales, and have firm plans to roll this function out across the world in the near future."
Being compliant with the enhanced environmentally friendly vehicle (EEV) standard - the strictest emission legislation in Europe - the Hybrid 7900 also addresses the issue of noise pollution in bustling urban centres. Able to run on electricity alone, it can take off with minimal noise and has a stop-start feature, by which the engine switches off automatically at bus stops and traffic lights.
"In recent years, we have seen a real drive for less noisy city centres," says Jobson. "Bearing this in mind, we have done our utmost to reduce noise pollution, providing benefits not only for operators, drivers and passengers, but also local residents living close to bus stops. It is our vision that one day in the near future people may actually want a bus stop outside their house."
And how important is design in all of this, given modern-day demand for aesthetics? While the Hybrid 7900 comes with features such as electric doors, and a spacious and bright interior, Jobson claims it is not the be all and end all for operators.
"It depends on how much additional money you are willing to put into the system," he says. "For some, the image is quite important. However, if operators are essentially only looking at fuel savings, then aesthetics don't really matter at all. I would hasten to add that there are different drivers for different regions - some are image-driven, others commercially driven. When these are combined with lower costs, the results are even better."
Counting the cost of hybrid technology
As Jobson alludes to frequently, cost is the central logistical factor that underpins hybrid design. He freely admits that Volvo "struggled with realising different hybrid technologies over the years", which prompted the group to conduct numerous studies and research into total cost of ownership.
"Customers tend to place great weight on TCO," he says. "This means looking at fuel costs, addressing maintenance issues and really making a complete cost-effective offer that is more favourable than standard diesel buses. Having been on a par with diesel for so long, I think we're getting to the point where we can compete with most offers."
However, return on investment is ultimately contingent on the nature and level of vehicle usage - "if you're buying for a school bus, which runs for maybe only two hours a day, then it's difficult to get economy with a hybrid drive," notes Jobson.
Therefore, to justify the purchase price of a hybrid model - which tends to be much higher than that of diesel - regular working hours are required, with the understanding that costs will then be distributed over time.
"If you have a bus in operation for over 12 hours a day, then there is an obvious, positive business case," explains Jobson. "This is something manufacturers such as ourselves are in the process of making operators aware of."
In the meantime, Volvo is working on an articulated version of the Hybrid 7900, which is set for release next year. With wider doors, lower floors and the ability to carry more passengers - up to 150 - it can also run on up to 100% biofuel.
However, in spite of articulated models allowing for cuts in fuel consumption and emissions per passenger, they continue to divide opinion, with detractors citing safety concerns. Notably, Mayor of London Boris Johnson withdrew the city's articulated vehicles, known as bendy buses, amid much controversy in 2011.
Time will tell. But what is more evident is a growing awareness of hybrid buses as municipal authorities look for more sustainable transportation systems. The death knell may not have been sounded just yet for diesel - it is more likely that a transition to hybrid technology will be staggered - but Jobson is of the belief that the die has already been cast.
"There is still work to do, in terms of creating more awareness among operators," he says. "But looking back to 2012, I would say that it will be the year written in the history books as when hybrid bus technology became the preferred choice."