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Bombardier branches out into electric bus business

A fully electric bus at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) exhbition in Geneva that uses Bombardier’s wireless electric technology, called Primove.

Antje Dohrn/Bombardier

An unusual item dominated Bombardier Inc.'s display stand at one of the world's biggest transportation exhibitions. It wasn't a shiny new plane or train. It was a bus.

The orange-and-white bus looked perfectly ordinary on the outside, but it was the showpiece for Bombardier's push into a fast-growing new market – electric buses – that the Montreal-based company thinks has the potential to go global.

The bus is equipped with an electric propulsion system, a new type of battery and a novel wireless charging system that allows the battery to suck up energy from a module buried under the road at bus stops. Bombardier's system, called Primove, requires no wires or overhead cables. For cities, the allure of electricity-powered public transportation is reduced emissions from vehicles.

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"This is a significant move into the e-mobility market," said Neil Walker, Primove's senior director. "We're not in the bus market, but we can become a big part of the bus market supply chain."

Bombardier used Monday's opening day of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) to launch the integrated Primove system for commercial use, having launched Primove's research and development effort in 2010. Four Primove transportation projects – three in Germany and one in Belgium – are already under way.

Bombardier plans to make e-mobility a big part of its business portfolio, now dominated by passenger jets, business jets and trains.

The number of city buses (almost all diesel-powered) sold in 2011 worldwide was 64,000. The figure is expected to more than double to 135,000 by 2020. Of that number, 10 per cent will be electric buses, Bombardier forecasts.

But the technology is advancing quickly, and the company says it could eventually dominate bus transportation.

"We think the full market can be electric," said Jeremie Desjardins, Primove's business leader.

Electric buses are the hot public transport product. At the UITP event, held at the vast Palexpo exhibition site near the Geneva airport, there was hardly a diesel bus on display.

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Electric or hybrid technology (a combination or diesel and battery power) were ubiquitous. Some were plug-in electrics with short ranges. Others used hydrogen fuel cells.

Still others, like Bombardier's Primove, displayed batteries that could be charged wirelessly, at bus stops, giving them theoretically unlimited range.

The makers of electric buses are gambling that cities will buy them in an effort to reduce pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, and greenhouse gases. The buses are also much quieter and vibrate less than diesel buses. But to nail down sales, manufacturers will have to convince municipalities that the fuel savings will more than offset the cost of electric buses and their charging systems.

Bombardier's system uses a lightweight lithium-ion battery that is installed on the roof of the bus. It powers electric motors whose design was inspired by the motors used by Bombardier's city trams and streetcars around the world.

The batteries are charged when the bus stops over a "charging slab" embedded in the road pavement. The slab is connected to the electricity grid and will zap a high-powered charge – 200 kilowatts – to the batteries for as long as the bus is stopped, typically between 10 and 30 seconds. Bombardier says the system is perfectly safe; the electromagnetic field is contained in the small air gap between the charging slab and the receptor plate underneath the bus and will not interfere with electronic devices such as heart pacemakers.

Bombardier faces a lot of competition in the wireless electric bus market. A German company called Conductix Wampfler, owned by the French engineering and transportation giant Delachaux, has a similar inductive battery charging system called IPT.

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Other companies plan to use electric buses whose rooftop batteries are charged by an above-ground charging arm installed at bus stops. One such system, called Watt, is made by France's Power Vehicle Innovation, an electric bus maker. Epvre Delquie, the company's sales and marketing manager, claims its charging system is superior to Bombardier's "because you don't have to dig up the streets."

Bombardier thinks electric buses have the most potential in Europe, where fuel costs are typically twice as high as those in North America. In North America, electric buses might have to compete with buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG). The glut of shale gas has sent North American natural gas prices plummeting since 2008, making it attractive as a transportation fuel. Shale gas is not yet a competitive fuel in Europe, but could be, as enormous reserves are found in Britain, France, Poland and other countries.

Mr. Desjardins, of Bombardier, said the company's Primove system "will be competitive" with diesel and CNG, but would not provide any cost scenarios.

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