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Holland's Whispering Wheels

Buses are the dirty secret of the sustainability movement. While there is broad consensus that increased use of public transit is a Good Thing, self-powered buses -- the most flexible available form of public transportation -- are often noisy, pollution-spewing monstrosities. This is largely due to their diesel engines, a necessity due to the sheer power needed to push a massive vehicle along.

Now take a look at the current crop of hybrid-electric cars roaming the highways, such as the Prius or (the one I drive) the Honda Civic Hybrid. Quiet, efficient, clean... but they're no muscle cars. Surely there's no way to mix the two -- the power and utility of the urban bus and the quiet efficiency of the hybrid.

Au contraire.

The city of Apeldoorn, in Holland, is about to start testing a bus design which is at least 50 percent more efficient than previous models. The bus will rely on a standard engine charging batteries supplying power to direct-drive electric motors in the wheels. It still runs on diesel (but will produce only a fraction of current model emissions), and from the perspective of both drivers and passengers the only notable difference will be how quiet it is. It will be the first real hybrid-electric passenger bus.

The company producing the wheel-motor system, e-Traction, claims that their innovation comes from taking a new look at traditional motors. Rather than a static ring of electromagnets making a rotor turn, the center bar is held still while the ring spins. This produces enough torque to push a bus. While regenerative braking is used to help recharge the batteries, most of the battery power comes from the diesel engine. But because the engine doesn't need to change gears or rev up and down as the bus moves, it can be run at its most fuel-efficient speed at all times.

The result is a vehicle which uses less fuel (but doesn't require an entirely new fuel infrastructure to be useful), produces far fewer emissions (without simply displacing emissions to the central electric power generation grid), and makes the experience of using public transit less unpleasant. Works for me.

Comments (8)

Another concept is telecommuting. If more people are telecommuting, less will be travelling from suburbia to the cities. This decreases traffic and pollution significantly.

Combined with these buses, a lot could be done in the way of decreasing our impact on the environment.

Of course, this doesn't help cow flatulence, which is supposed to be depleting the ozone layer... :)


There are two hydrogen-powered buses in Madrid, Spain. They cost way too much to become the standard for now, but they are clean and efficient. Been around for a few months producing no emissions at all. Hopefully more of these will come along in the near future.

Jamais Cascio:

Ballard of Canada has really been pushing the use of hydrogen fuel cells for buses. Since a bus is so much bigger than a passenger car, and doesn't have to look particularly stylish, it can be outfitted with bulky current-generation fuel cell systems fairly easily. Unfortunately, the fuel costs remain fairly high, so (as H points out) there's little economic incentive at present to go that route.

Taran, undoubtedly telecommuting will play a growing role in years to come, but as someone who has spent about half of my professional life telecommuting (and the other half working in small organizations), I can say that the big drawback of telecommuting is that it undermines the ability of an organization to function as a social institution -- that is, as a way of disseminating values and knowledge through its members. This tends to happen more due to shared experiences than to shared emails.

Dennis Moser:

Telecommuting is NOT a panacea for all jobs...sorry, there will still be a preponderance of workers who have to show up face to face...

One cool thing about the e-Traction bus plans is that the diesel generators could also run on biodiesel or vegetable oil, further reducing emissions issues while being sustainable resource. Hmmm, corn for cows AND cars...

I never said it was a panacea. But it is a benefit...

I am not sure if hybrid vehicles represents a sustainable model. Aren't vehicles with dual power plants inherently heavier, more expensive, and thus less cost-effective? Has sufficient attention been paid to how their costly components can be recycled -- especially the batteries?

One small error in your post: 'Holland' is not the same thing as The Netherlands. Holland is actually a name for just two provinces in NL. The country's name is the Netherlands.

Sorry about that, Frank. I'll be more careful in the future.


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