Hynovis or the Hydrogen bus

February 4, 2010

It is a  tale of two approaches:

  • Identify a break through technology[9], find an application for it and pour money toward a demonstration project, hoping to find a demand
  • or

  • Identify a demand, then pour money to develop technologies and synergies to enable an answer to the demand

Both can work, but one involves more risks than the other.

The train’s world example

In the later case, we find the “conventional” High Speed train: the demand is to travel “from down town to to down town” in a “time competitive with air travel” and at a “price competitive with the automobile“: that was roughly the French TGV project requirement back at the end of the 60’s, when the French railways company was also considering to address the congestion on its Paris-Lyon railway line.

There is no really break-through technology in the French TGV, or its direct competitors: they are all trains moved by traditional century year old electrical motor concept, and running on centuries old rail track concept …but there is a combination of incremental advance making the whole product a break through advance in the railway world.

In the former case, we find the magnetic levitation technology. A break through technology associated mainly with train demonstration projects.

Today, there are 1850km of High speed train lines in revenue service in France only [3]. From the original speed of 260km on the first line (Paris-Lyon), the train has accelerated to 320km/h on its later extension toward Strasbourg. To not embarrass anyone, we will not mention the line mileage of commercial “maglev” train [10].

The bus’ world example
Hynovis bus (credit Irisbus)

Hynovis is a concept bus, output a of a french program called “affordable and clean vehicle” from the french government agency PREDIT which has benefited of €120 million in total on the period 2002-2008[4], the Hynovis bus being only one project in that program covering most mode of transportation.

the Hynovis program mandate is to answer to a demand: cleaner bus for sure but must also answer to the need of “fund starved” transit agencies, so the bus cost must be economically justified by

  • the saving on the bus consumption
  • improved operation like
    • reduction of dwelling time
    • improvement of the loading capacity
  • improved social role, like better accessibility for disabled people, improved attractiveness…

This program has teamed the Paris transit agency with a bus manufacturers and bus part providers [6] on the conception of the  bus. As you can see (click for video), the Hynovis design try to answer to all requirement without “break through” technology but presents nevertheless a new product by incremental step on numerous fronts:

  • the improved consumption is provided by an hybrid engine and light weight material
  • reduction of dwelling time is provided by a better circulation inside the bus:
    • A back door moved further toward the rear of the bus, allowed by a rear axles moved under the rear bench, allowing more smooth flow on an enlarged low floor area
    • A twin steering axle fitted with low-profile tires, allowing the central corridor to be enlarged to ~4 feet alongside the front wheel housings, compared to ~3feet for a standard bus (note how this can accelerate the boarding of wheelchair and other strollers)
  • the reorganization of the wheels allow an increase of capacity of 8% [5]

To be sure, the Hynovis innovations don’t come for free, and the Paris agency experiment will tell whether the return on investment worth it or not, but more certainly, the lesson learnt of the experiment will improve the future bus design over the foreseeable years.

The Canadian Hydrogen bus fleet is only one application of a technology in which the federal government has invested $215 million since 2003 [1]. The sole demonstration project will cost more than $110 million taxpayer money for 20 buses [2], and address only one issue (GHG), at the eventual expense of the others.

There is honestly more chance that the hydrogen bus share the fate of the Maglev train than the one of the TGV. In the meantime, incremental improvment in the bus technology allowed by project like Hynovis will allow sustainable (not only in term of CO2 emission, but also financially!) expansion of public transit, at the expense of less environmentally friendly transportation mode, and at the end of the day, the Hynovis concept will have probably a better impact on the environment that the Hydrogen bus [7][8].

What is the best approach?

A subsidiary question could be: Is it the role of a government to gamble with the tax payer money or to address the concern of its citizens?


[1] This as a part of the Climate Change Technology and Innovation (T&I) Program, for the development and demonstration of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies

[2] $45 million from the province and BC Transit, $45 million from the federal government, and $23 from the city of Whistler. Andrew Mitchell, B.C. Transit celebrates hydrogen fleet, fuelling station, Pique newsmagazine, Jan 27, 2010

[3] number from wikipedia in french

[4] the agency budget is in fact of 360 million, from which ~35% are allocated to the affordable and clean vehicle” program. (see predit publication (in French))

[6] Predit Info n 17 in French

[7] and that is discounting the fact that the province consider the Hydrogen bus as part of its much touted “$14 billion Provincial” Transit plan

[8] Worth to mention that it seems also to be the position stated by Stephen Rees in some of its posts and others disgressions and obviously the viewpoint is not aimed at fuel cell, but at technology driven choices rather than economically grounded ones, and could apply to CNG buses as well

[9] Preferably where you think you can develop a competitive advantage.

[10] See also Human Transit take on it and on technology driven approach in general like the monorail.

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