Blue Bird takes flight

May 1, 2007 By    

The distinctive rumble of school buses will be a bit less noisy next fall as hundreds of school children ride the first wave of propane-dedicated vehicles on the market since 2002.

Blue Bird's Vision is the first propane-dedicated bus on the market since 2002.
Powertrain International Executive Vice President Bob Pachla, left, and Program Manager Kevin Price show off the LPI engine.

Blue Bird Corp., one of the world’s leading bus manufacturers, is taking orders for its new propane Vision bus featuring the General Motors 8.1-liter engine with a Liquid Propane Injection fuel system. The new product line makes propane the only alternative fuel offering in this size bus, which is dominated by Cummins and Caterpillar diesel engines.

Blue Bird plans to sell 2,200 propane buses nationwide by 2010. Sales are expected to double after that as school districts face the higher cost of diesel engines redesigned to meet stricter U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions requirements. By 2013, Blue Bird estimates there will be 14,200 propane school buses in operation that will consume 425 million gallons of fuel over their useful life.

Powertrain International Executive Vice President Bob Pachla, left, and Program Manager Kevin Price show off the LPI engine.
Blue Bird’s Vision is the first propane-dedicated bus on the market since 2002.

“I think this will really take off. I really believe it’s going to be that big,” says Robert Pachla, executive vice president for Powertrain Integration, a division of Quantum Tecstar. The Michigan -based company was hired by the Propane Education & Research Council to integrate the engine and fuel system into the bus chassis.

The project sprouted from a 2002 market study funded by PERC that identified a number of opportunities to break diesel’s stranglehold on the 615,000 domestic school buses that travel 5 billion miles each year and burn more than 650 million gallons of fuel annually. Only 4,000 alternative fuel vehicles – evenly split between propane and natural gas – are in those fleets, according to the study.

School buses are considered good candidates to use propane because they typically travel fixed routes of limited distance each day, and return to a central fueling location. The market analysis found that California, Texas and New York stand out as marketing opportunities. Besides being the top three states in number of school buses on the road, each also has substantial propane infrastructure and large student enrollments in non-attainment areas.

Additionally, school districts are replacing buses built before 1977 because they were built before current safety standards. Of the 4,200 vehicles still on the road, more than half are in California, the study found.

The sales opportunity identified in the study is bolstered by federal mandates to clean up diesel emissions. By this year, all diesel engine vehicles – including school buses – must have emission control devices and use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. Those changes have significantly increased both the purchase price and the operating cost for diesel fleets, narrowing the traditional gap between alternative fuel choices.

As further incentive, school districts are eligible for EPA grants of 50 percent of the entire cost of a new model year 2007, 2008 or 2009 propane bus that meets 2010 EPA emissions standards. Because school districts do not pay taxes, those that dispense their own fuel are entitled to a tax rebate on the fuel they consume.

The report piqued the interest of several groups:

  • Texas-based CleanFUEL USA, a domestic manufacturer of propane dispensing equipment and aftermarket engine fuel systems, had been working on a propane-dedicated version of the GM 8.1-liter engine for medium-duty truck applications. The LPI engine had plenty of power for school buses and was in the process of earning EPA certification. (The engine emits 50 percent less non-methane hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides than the 2007 ceilings established by the EPA for medium-duty trucks and buses).
  • The Railroad Commission of Texas’ Alternative Fuels Research & Education Division wanted to replace some 2,200 propane school buses across the state that were approaching the end of their useful lives.
  • Blue Bird, like other bus manufacturers, was looking to expand its alternative fuel options in a way to economically meet the challenges of 2007 EPA engine emission requirements.

The promising market outlook led PERC to seek proposals to develop and commercialize a propane school bus.

“We got funding requests from several aftermarket companies, but we preferred to have an OEM in order to simplify and improve all future service issues,” says Brian Feehan, managing director for PERC’s engine fuel programs.

In February 2006, Blue Bird and Powertrain finalized an agreement on the sale of the 8.1-liter LPI engine for use in the bus. That same month, PERC approved a grant of $849,000 for Blue Bird to build two prototypes – one with air brakes and one with hydraulic. The prototypes were initiated in August and completed by the end of the year so the buses could be put in Blue Bird’s production schedule for June.

The prototype was unveiled and got rave reviews and orders at its first public display last November at a National Association of Pupil Transportation trade show. It has since drawn propane marketer interest at the Southeastern Convention and International Trade Show in Atlanta and the Midwest Propane Gas Convention and Trade Show in Indianapolis.

“It’s amazing how fast this whole thing came together – just four months to turnaround,” says Pachla, whose company specializes in engineering services, testing, GM OEM engine sales for on-road applications and alternative fuel system integration. The Blue Bird project marks Powertrain’s first OEM venture.

The low-emission vehicles rolling off Blue Bird’s Georgia assembly line generate 325 horsepower and are available in 47 to 77 passenger capacities. A 60-gallon propane tank package that provides a 300-mile fuel range is positioned inside the frame rails in the rear overhang.

“I think it was a shock to everybody that we were able to come together and do this program. It has generated a lot of excitement. The word is out now and even has Canada calling,” Pachla says.

Blue Bird is handling marketing of the vehicles through its dealerships, which also will provide fuel system training for school district mechanics. In addition to states identified as having set-aside budgets to meet school bus emissions standards, the early entry target market is school districts that already have aging propane vehicles in their fleets.

The first several buses are due to roll off Blue Bird’s production line in June for PERC and Blue Bird to put in the field as demonstration models.

“This project required a comprehensive marketing package for us to go out into school districts and explain the improvements of the LPI system. Because it’s a new product, they want to demo it before they buy. So we are going to put it in their hands to try,” says Feehan, noting that school districts normally make purchases in late spring for the following school year.

“We need this product to be commercially successful, not just available. If we can demonstrate success, more will follow.”

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