There are no Chinese- or Hong Kong-made electric buses and hybrid minibuses currently ready for wide-scale commercial use, say the latest reports from the Environmental Protection Department’s Pilot Green Transport Fund. However, at the other end of the EV spectrum, electric and hybrid light vans from established Japanese carmakers are proving cheap, reliable and popular.
The city has just approved a 27th round of green transport trials under its HK$300 million subsidy scheme, with approvals for nine hybrid public light buses and 17 vans for courier and food companies around the city, bringing the total number of vehicles and systems trialled (or awaiting trial) to 262. The government stumps up 50% of the purchase price in exchange for two year’s worth of detailed operational reports, which are publicly shared.
Out of the vehicles already approved for trial, all-electric light vans now account for 49%, and operators are happy with their choice. With tried-and-tested commercial products from international firms, electric vans are almost a no-brainer for delivery firms.
Kum Shing Construction, for example, says its three Nissan e-NV200 electric vans reported average operating costs 7.7 times lower than for its diesel fleet, with no issues reported among the vans.
Airport Freight Forwarding Centre is also trialling the Nissan e-NV200, and gave a positive interim report: the 620kg-payload van offered significant fuel savings and operating costs, running at HK$0.28/km compared with HK$12.43/km for its Isuzu light van diesel predecessor, over one year’s operation. The operator did not see any decline in battery performance or fuel economy over that time.
Chinese-made bus reliability fail
However, buses did not fare well in the test. Two electric FDG6102EVG buses supplied by Shenzhen-based Wuzhoulong as on-campus shuttles for Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK) broke down within two days of the trial’s launch. According to CUHK, the manufacturer claimed that the 100kW motor may have been inadequate for the frequent stop-starts of the shuttle bus service, and for the hills on campus, and had burned out. An industry participant, requesting anonymity, questioned whether a 100kW motor was feasible for an 18-tonne unladen bus, even running a relatively flat and stable route, being the same power unit as found in, for example, a 2-tonne Tesla Model S.
Wuzhoulong did not respond to questions. Overall, CUHK was not impressed. “Substantive amount of work and time was required to improve the EVs and thus their utilization rates were very low: EV-1, 1.1% and EV-2, 3.9%,” it says.
Two electric Feiyan buses made by Shandong Yixing, from Shandong Province, for exhibition and convention venue KITEC also performed badly: according to KITEC’s interim report: “The EVs were plagued by a number of problems that led to frequent maintenance. The major ones were the large temperature difference among the battery compartments, battery management system faults and front axle suspension failure. However, during the trial period, about 50% of the EVs’ total maintenance downtime was unrelated to their electric drive systems; they were related to temperature sensor, brake, air compressor, axle balance and body works instead.” One of the buses caught fire and was damaged beyond repair, only running for 11 months of its 24-month trial.
Meanwhile Hotel Icon detailed many problems with its two Wuzhoulong Light Bus shuttles. Drivers reported multiple issues with air-conditioning, doors, battery charging, braking, gear shifting. Drivers, owners and passengers alike did not believe the EV was any quieter than their diesel counterparts. The two EVs had a total of 83 days’ downtime between January and June, compared with 28.5 days for their two diesel predecessors. Moreover, Hotel Icon reported “diminishing fuel economy” of the electric buses over just six months. The total operating costs of the EV buses were HK$6.57/km for EV-1 and HK$3.53/km for EV-2, compared with $3.13 and $3.19 for the two diesels. While the hotel incurred no additional maintenance costs for the EVs, as they were under warranty at the time, it did have to pay for replacements while the Chinese-made buses were being repaired.
Local hybrid minibus costly to run
Hong Kong-made hybrid light buses (the classic Hong Kong minibuses, or “flying cars of death” in popular local parlance) performed a little better than the electric single-decker buses, although drivers still reported disappointing performance and higher operating costs than for their LPG fleet.
Nam Kee Transport’s GMI Gemini bus saw fuel costs that were 86% higher than its traditional Toyota LPG bus – and, according to the firm, “the driver was not satisfied with the [vehicle’s] acceleration rate, especially during climbing uphill. The hybrid bus was out of action for 12 days during the six month trial, for scheduled maintenance, while the Toyota had no downtime. Nam Kee concluded, in its interim report, an overall ambivalence to the machine.
Red minibus operator Leung Sick Chiu, on the other hand, hated its Gemini. Over its first six months it was down for 27 working days, 22 of which were unscheduled. Operating costs were 1.9 times that of its Toyota LPG minibus, and the driver said the vehicle was unbearably noisy while charging and driving under engine power. “The night shift driver does not want to use the [hybrid] anymore. He could not hear passengers notifying him to get off.” Leung Sick Chiu’s test ends in April 2020, when it will file a complete report.
Japanese-made hybrid vans performed better than the locally made minibuses, but still failed to wow the users. Courier company R&B Express ran a Mitsubishi Fuso hybrid for two years, finding it generally comparable to its Mitsubishi Fuso diesel – operating costs were around 77% of the cost of the diesel, with similar downtime: drivers reported slow acceleration on hills: in summary the firm said “R&B Express was generally satisfied with the [hybrid] but had no plan to replace the entire vehicle fleet.”