Earlier this week President Obama announced a plan to invest $300 billion over the next 10 years in new transportation initiatives designed to reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion.  The plan will be funded by a $10 a barrel tax on oil.  Although the President’s plan envisions investments in technologies and infrastructure well beyond electrification, it is clear that the Administration seeks a major investment in mass transit systems that will be powered in part or in whole by electricity rather than by diesel fuel.

But there is more to electrifying mass transit than just investing in electric buses.  Those buses must be safe, and perceived to be safe, by the transit authorities that operate them and by the commuting public.  A growing concern among many NAATBatt members is the practice at many transit authorities of converting existing diesel buses to electric drive, but doing so by using low-cost, low quality battery systems manufactured off-shore.  This is potentially a very dangerous practice.

A large format battery system sufficient to power a mass transit bus stores a tremendous amount of energy.  A thermal event involving such a system would make the few highly publicized fires in the Tesla Model S and a Chevy Volt look small and tame by comparison.  If the bus is packed with commuters at the time of such event, the result could be catastrophic.  And the commercial consequences of such a disaster for every company engaged in the energy storage business, whether working in cars, trucks, maritime, aviation or buses, would also be catastrophic.

NAATBatt International is dedicated to minimizing any chance that a thermal event can occur on an electric or hybrid electric mass transit bus operating in the United States.  Several such events have been reported or rumored to have occurred in China, where the use of electric buses is much higher than it is in the United States.  Information about such incidents in China is often opaque. But any such incident that occurs in the United States will be front page news and a disaster for the industry.  NAATBatt wants to ensure that it is news that will never need to be reported.

NAATBatt International is preparing a proposal to submit to the U.S. Department of Transportation that will require any large format battery system installed in a public mass transit bus to comply with stringent safety standards and to undergo a thorough testing program prior to being put in service.  NAATBatt is still working on the details of its proposal.  All NAATBatt member firms with an interest in the subject are invited to participate in the new NAATBatt Electric Bus Safety Committee.  The initial meeting of the Committee will be held on the morning of Tuesday, March 1 at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells resort, just prior to the start of the NAATBatt 2016 Annual Meeting & Conference.  All NAATBatt members are welcome to attend.

Electric bus safety is a critical issue, both for the commuting public and for the advanced battery industry.  Raising the profile of this issue within the U.S. Department of Transportation and providing it with guidance as to a solution will be an important task at NAATBatt in the months ahead.