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GM's Hybrids: Beyond the Urban Environment

At 1,169 square miles, Yosemite National Park is about the size of Rhode Island.

At 1,169 square miles, Yosemite National Park is about the size of Rhode Island. Of that area, 1,101 square miles are defined by the National Park Service as being wilderness. Each year, about 3.5 million people visit Yosemite, many of whom are in the significantly smaller area. Which could lead to non-bucolic conditions. So one of the opportunities afforded to visitors is the ability to ride on the Park Service's free shuttle service that ferries people around the more habitable areas. During the past 11 years, 35 million passengers have ridden on the buses. The distance traveled, in total, is 2.8-million miles. Heretofore, these buses have been conventional diesel models. But at the end of April, the first of what will be 18 buses manufactured by Gillig (Hayward, CA) were delivered to the park. What's notable about these buses is that they are the first of any at a U.S. National Park powered by an advanced hybrid propulsion system, in this case, supplied by General Motors.
The hybrid system is produced by GM Allison Transmission (Indianapolis). According to Tom Stephens, group vice president, GM Powertrain, the architecture of this system is a precursor to that which will be fitted into the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon in late 2007. Remarks Stephens: "This bus uses the most efficient parallel hybrid architecture available in the world today, and has served as a starting point for GM's co-development of a two-mode full hybrid system for application in trucks, cars and sport utility vehicles with a variety of drive configurations, such as front-, rear- and all-wheel drive."

The buses at Yosemite are powered by diesel engines built by Cummins. But whereas there had been 8.9-liter engines deployed in the old bus fleet, the hybrid system allows the engines in the new buses to be 5.9 liters—while offering, Stephens says, 50% faster acceleration. While faster acceleration per se may not seem to be particularly key in a setting like Yosemite, that characteristic of the parallel hybrid system is important to the buses in services like King County, Washington (as in Seattle) and the 21 other cities around the country where the buses are deployed (there are 346 buses in service; so far, these buses have had more than 6.5 million revenue service miles). After all, oftentimes urban buses are merely stopping and starting, from one stop to another, an ideal situation for hybrid systems. Yes, Yosemite will get a fuel efficiency advantage, which is estimated to be from 20 to 55%. Yes, the air in the park will be cleaner, as the buses reduce NOx by about 60% and particulates, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide by about 90%. But one of the things that the park rangers at Yosemite are most excited about is the fact that the noise levels will be reduced by 70%, which is certainly key in an environment where it is nicer to hear the finches and warblers than engines.

Jeff Everett, service engineer, Allison, says a key benefit provided by the hybrid system for buses is that the maintenance requirements are greatly reduced as compared with conventional powertrain systems, which increases uptime. Once again, this is something that is particularly advantageous when used in urban transportation applications; it is still something that is important to the concessionaire at Yosemite, North Delaware, which is responsible for running the fleet.

If the maintenance, uptime, and fuel savings are taken into account over the life time of a bus—and transit buses tend to be in service for 10 or more years—then the premium for the hybrid system, which is estimated to be on the order of $150,000 to $200,000, is more than made up for.

Looking ahead to light-duty truck and passenger car applications, Stephens says that focus is on reducing the cost of the components, such as the electric motors. He says that what they're looking toward is a case where the intellectual property will be developed by GM, and then the manufacturing will be outsourced to other suppliers—after all, the manufacture of electric motor and battery packs are not the sorts of things that GM is particularly familiar with. He is not, however, looking for simple production sources, as he expects the suppliers to be conducting R&D. He says, for example, that he'd like the electric motor supplier to show him what the next couple of generations of motors would likely be.

Although Toyota (and to a lesser extent, Honda) is getting a lot of popular run for its hybrid consumer vehicle offerings, Stephens says that he's convinced that supplying buses (i.e., going after the big users of fuel rather than addressing compact cars and crossovers, which tend to be comparatively fuel efficient, anyway) is the better approach. He also says that they've been waiting for the release of the new SUVs on the GMT 900 platform for the hybrid deployment for smaller vehicles because had they put it in the GMT 800 models, they'd not have a sufficiently long life. They'll be waiting for about a year into the GMT 900 production to bring out the hybrid versions so as to not cannibalize conventional internal combustion engine sales.

In the words of Beth Lowery, GM vice president, Environment and Energy, they're pursuing "market-based technologies"—as in technologies that not only make environmental sense, but business sense, as well.—GSV