In the autumn of 2016, as the electric bus market was beginning to gain serious momentum, zero emission vehicle pioneer Proterra needed to scale up production. With a mandate to be a global leader in the design and manufacture of zero-emission, heavy-duty buses, they looked to another battery-electric manufacturer that had to scale quickly—Tesla—and scooped up their VP of Manufacturing, Josh Ensign. He’d overseen the building of the Model S and the launch of the Model X passenger cars and was well-versed in producing a new car every 130 seconds. His next challenge? Building a factory to produce heavy-duty electric buses.
“Proterra saw the electrification wave coming and they wanted someone who knew how to build and scale factories, ” Ensign said. In September 2016 with only a handful of weeks with the company, he ventured to Proterra’s 160,000 square foot Los Angeles factory to begin the ramp up.
“I rolled into the factory and it was wall-to-wall with cardboard boxes full of Ugg boots. It housed a little Amazon operation where the drivers were pulling up, loading up boxes, and taking them away. The building would not be cleared until the end of January. We had hired only one person at that point for the LA factory and it was the engineering manager. We didn't have a plant manager or a facilities manager. There was a lot of work needed to be done to get the facility ready and I was a little panicked, frankly.
“First things first, you have to hire great people. So I went out and hired the plant manager as fast as I could, brought in a couple of people from my network that I knew would help us plan how we’d build up the factory, how it would look, the equipment we’d need and where it would go. We put those elements on order for the end of the year, we cleared all of the Ugg boots out of the factory by the end of January 2017, and sure enough we started building our first bus right at the end of July 2017. We completed our very first bus at the end of August 2017. That’s unheard of.”
There’s no such thing as moving a brand-new bus off the line every 2 minutes, as is the case with high production lines for passenger vehicles. “Thankfully, our process isn't like the Tesla factory I ran where there are thousands of robots everywhere. It's pretty manual and we rely a lot on people—there are tools, equipment, and process, all of that—but the most important job is hiring great employees. Hiring people and then figuring out how to train them to build a bus when you’ve never done it yourself was my challenge.”
Proterra buses use somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 parts, about 48% of which are customized to each individual order. Aesthetic concerns include inner and outer decor, seats and seat layouts, storage space, seatbelts, and flooring. On the functional side, manufacturers consider ADA features such as ramps and specialized seating, in addition to a plethora of other options such as cameras, fare boxes, viewing screens, and USB ports. Another critical customization is energy.
“To put it in perspective, the biggest Tesla vehicle stores 100 kilowatt hours of electricity. For Proterra, our smallest offering is more than four times what a Tesla vehicle would be at the top end,” he reported. “We can go from 440 kilowatt hours to 660 kilowatt hours. Our customers can pick the drivetrain and how much power they want. A customer in Park City, Utah, will be climbing a lot of hills and will want a more powerful and more efficient drivetrain. Then you can get into things like, ‘What type of air conditioning system do you want?’ Our customers are pretty particular because they have fleets of hundreds of buses that have one particular type of air conditioning unit. That's what their mechanics know how to work on and that's what they have the spare parts for, so you better be able to provide that very specific air conditioning unit.”
Proterra’s bona fides as an American bus maker are rock solid, too. “We are a US company employing US workers using parts and components made in the US,” he stressed. “The transit bus market supports a predominantly domestic supply chain and more than 75% of the parts we put into our bus are made and manufactured in the United States.”
Today, Proterra has sold more than 950 electric buses to over 120 communities across 43 US states and Canadian provinces. Proterra battery-electric buses are deployed at airports, universities, national parks, and companies across North America.
Proterra’s headquarters and battery manufacturing facility is located in Burlingame, Calif. Its bus production facilities are in Los Angeles and Greenville, S.C.
One of the reasons Proterra is so unique is because of its battery pack design. At its Silicon Valley facility, Proterra manufactures high-performance battery systems that have industry-leading energy density for maximum range, a flexible design to fit within a wide variety of vehicles, and a ruggedized commercial grade housing to withstand harsh environments.
“Our battery systems are designed by the best minds in battery engineering,” Ensign said. “Battery technology is what has made Proterra stand out from its competitors. Our safe, compact, and powerful battery systems have been the key behind Proterra’s record-breaking range and industry-leading energy efficiency.”
Proterra battery packs are smart, with more than 70 sensors throughout each pack to deliver continuous monitoring and diagnostics and active liquid cooling to keep them performing optimally all the time. They also have a built-in proprietary management system that dynamically adjusts the energy reserve to maximize performance and range.
“At Proterra, ‘safety first’ is far more than a slogan—it has been a Proterra mantra since the company’s founding and something we consider in every aspect of our business. That applies to passenger safety, mechanic and operational safety, and our battery safety—from battery design to placement.”
Proterra conducts the most rigorous testing and validation program in the industry to meet the highest safety standards for battery-electric transit vehicles. Tests performed include vehicle crash, manhole cover explosion, defective or failed cell within pack, overcharge of high voltage system, external flooding, and fires.
Battery packs in Proterra Catalyst transit buses are located in the safest possible location—outside of the passenger compartment, beneath the bus between the two axles. This avoids placing batteries in the rear of the bus, which is a common crash zone and creates a lower center of gravity for greatest vehicle stability. The batteries are liquid temperature-controlled and incorporate both active and passive safety systems, with ruggedized, reinforced battery enclosures, that ensures technicians and operators are protected from high voltage components.
Today, Proterra’s battery systems have been proven on the road through more than 12 million miles in service in heavy-duty applications for mass transit.
One of the biggest challenges with battery-electric buses is the charging infrastructure and energy management. Customers understand the vehicle operation but keeping the juice flowing was mystery new aspect to electric fleets. However, Proterra quickly ran into a problem when they couldn’t find the perfect charging solution on the market.
“There was no reliable, high-power charging system around designed strictly with heavy-duty electric fleets in mind, so Proterra decided to design its own.”
Proterra designed a range of chargers to meet the needs of fleet owners with a variety of power levels to accommodate available charge time, daily range requirements and depot layout. Proterra charging systems utilize standardized technology, which means electric buses, utility vehicles and cars can share the same chargers.
“But we didn’t stop there. Proterra seized the opportunity to create a genuine turnkey solution for EV charging station infrastructure. Now we can sell the bus, the charger, and we will do all the infrastructure for our customers. X number of months later you walk up you have everything you need—just unplug the bus and go. That's a huge competitive advantage,” Ensign admitted.
Proterra launched its Proterra Energy fleet solutions, the industry’s first comprehensive energy delivery system for heavy-duty vehicle fleets. Proterra Energy provides a full suite of options that enable turnkey delivery of a complete energy ecosystem for heavy-duty electric fleets, including design, build, financing, operations, maintenance, and energy optimization.
“Proterra took its significant expertise in electric vehicle management, battery and charger design, and design and management of EV infrastructures projects and created this group to create a one-stop shop for fleet operators deploying electric vehicles.”
Roughly one year to the day Ensign joined the company, Proterra broke the world record for the longest distance ever traveled by an electric vehicle on a single charge. The vehicle was Proterra’s 40-foot Catalyst E2 max with 660 kWh of power. The very idea that a heavy electric vehicle could travel 1,100 miles still boggles the mind.
“There's no electric vehicle on planet Earth that has been driven that far on a single charge. This is a 30,000-pound bus,” Ensign marveled.
The feat drew fresh eyes on Proterra and the company began receiving requests for its battery technology to power other vehicle categories. To meet this demand, Proterra launched its Proterra Powered group to help commercial vehicle manufacturers electrify their heavy-duty vehicles leveraging Proterra’s electric vehicle technology and battery solutions.
Proterra partnered with world-class OEMs such as Daimler and Van Hool to introduce 100% battery-electric vehicles. Proterra and Thomas Built Buses, a leading manufacturer of school buses in North America and subsidiary of Daimler, have unveiled a new high-performance electric school bus. Van Hool selected Proterra for its first all-electric motor coach in the North American market. Proterra recently announced a collaboration with Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation (FCCC) to develop the MT50e, a new all-electric delivery truck chassis.
“Almost all vehicle categories are starting to incorporate battery technology and offer an electric vehicle version—from school buses to refuse vehicles to delivery vans and semi-trucks. All these different industries need to figure out how to electrify quickly, but battery technology is not their expertise. So partnering with Proterra is the best option to eclipse the development curve and bring an electrified version of its vehicle to market quickly.”
Beyond the Bus
When it comes to social progress, Proterra walks the talk. Ensign estimates that 50% of his 250-person manufacturing crew are people of color. Proterra is dedicated to identifying talent from other underrepresented groups that may face barriers to gainful employment in the manufacturing sector. Proterra has formed partnerships with several organizations that help recruit talent from diverse backgrounds to fill positions across the company.
One of the groups is Defy Ventures, which helps justice-involved individuals looking for gainful employment. Defy Ventures aims to reduce the incarceration recidivism rate and stable employment is one of the most important factors in breaking the cycle of recidivism.
“I personally volunteer with Defy Ventures myself and am a mentor to their entrepreneurs in training. I am continuously impressed with the determination and dedication from individuals in the justice system to overcome barriers, improve their lives and make a positive impact in their community,” Ensign said.
Proterra also works with Daughters of Rosie, which helps women get hands-on manufacturing jobs; and Hire a Hero, which aims to help transitioning military members, and spouses, find quality careers when coming home from active duty.
“It comes down to the people, from our engineers that have ‘been there and done that’ on battery and electrification, through to the manufacturing folks, and all the way down to the shop floor. We pride ourselves on being a diverse workforce that provides great clean tech jobs to American factory workers,” he noted.
They are a very proud group of disruptors, from building buses to rebuilding lives. “Disrupting is hard, but when you have the right leaders and stay the course you can be successful.”
Proterra is a leader in the design and manufacture of zero-emission electric transit vehicles and EV technology solutions for commercial applications. Proterra provides a suite of products, services and financing options for a seamless transition to clean, quiet, battery-electric fleets. Designed for durability, safety and energy efficiency and validated by rigorous U.S. independent testing, Proterra products are proudly designed, engineered and manufactured in America, with offices in Silicon Valley, South Carolina, and Los Angeles.
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