BYD puts a jolt into public transit

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A black Hyundai makes a left turn off aptly named BYD Boulevard into the parking lot.

A blue car follows a few moments later. Then a truck.

The vehicles all move slowly through the lot, each driver searching for an empty piece of black asphalt between two white stripes. It’s 15 minutes to 9 on a March morning in California’s high desert, the sun that shines high above in a nearly cloudless sky is still mustering its strength for the day, and yet the parking lot is already full at BYD Coach & Bus.

It’s an everyday occurrence.

“The first day they built this, I was so happy because I didn’t have to park out there,” BYD Project Manager Jason Yan says, motioning his left hand beyond the expansive parking lot. He sighs and adds, “Right now, I have to do it again.”

The hundreds of designated parking places simply aren’t enough anymore. With an increased demand for its zero-emission, all-electric vehicles – primarily transit buses built in four sizes from 30 to 60 feet – BYD is regularly adding employees to keep pace at a manufacturing facility that continues to expand deeper into the surrounding western Mojave Desert.

The local workforce has swelled to more than 700 employees, a key factor in eliminating nearly all of the 10.9-percent unemployment rate that saddled Lancaster ahead of BYD’s 2014 opening, and, at full build-out, the company’s projections call for nearly 1,200 jobs.

BYD Project Manager Jason Yan points out the site of the next expansion project at BYD Coach & Bus in Lancaster. Steve Kiggins/SCVBJ

Following a massive expansion last year that tripled the working space at the Lancaster plant to about 450,000 square feet, providing the capacity to build up to 1,500 buses each year, BYD is preparing to add another 100,000 square feet of warehouse space this year.

“When I started at BYD 3 ½ years ago, there was maybe one in a hundred transit properties that were interested in talking to you about electric buses. You’re knocking on a door, trying to talk them into it, sell them on it,” BYD Senior Vice President Macy Neshati says. “And, now, virtually every single transit property in the nation is looking at it in one form or another – either making a headlong dive it into or at least doing a five- or 10-bus foray into it.”

The world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles, BYD has nearly 40,000 electric buses in services around the world – a number that will, by year’s end, grow to include the entire fleet of the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA). That’s not all: BYD continues to pioneer in electrified transportation, including automobiles, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, forklifts, even SkyRail.

The opening day of BYD’s SkyRail service in China last September lured about 40,000 people to Flower Expo Park in Yinchuan, and construction of lines to accommodate the monorail-style transportation is underway now in 20 Chinese cities.

Closer to home, BYD’s Lancaster facility will play a leading role in the company’s ongoing efforts to revolutionize transit with a convoy of battery-electric buses capable of traveling up to 275 miles on a single charge.

“Our focus here in the City of Lancaster is to always facilitate the growth of our local economy and job market via a foundation of sustainable employment that can create legacy and longevity for our residents,” Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris says. “We strive to attract businesses and industries which offer careers that truly support the needs and desires of our local families.
“BYD has been exemplary in not only providing stable jobs with future growth and development opportunities but also a work environment which is challenging, ever expanding, and reflective of organizational stewardship,” he says. “In addition, BYD’s corporate citizenship promotes and nurtures an inspiring level of morale, which is sure to retain and grow its employee base for years to come.”

The oversized piece of white paper in Kelly Meier’s hands is today’s roadmap. It’s color-coded, with yellow and blue, purple and orange, each shade representing one of the many jobs simultaneously in progress at the bustling motor factory.

There’s a new production schedule every week. With some 400 buses waiting on order, there will be for the foreseeable future.

As he walks the floor this morning, Meier points out buses being built for UC Irvine and Stanford. There are buses in various stages of completion for the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority in Tennessee, for the international airports in Atlanta and Indianapolis, for Albuquerque Rapid Transit in New Mexico.

What, you’re not just building buses for the AVTA in here?

“No, no,” Meier says with a smirk, acknowledging the all-too-common local misperception.

Plant Manager Kelly Meier looks over the color-coded BYD production schedule. Steve Kiggins/SCVBJ

The step-by-step process of building a BYD bus can span 60 to 90 days – depending on the size – and involves new employees at every stage as the steel chassis is first enclosed by aluminum siding and roofing and then outfitted with wheel wells, fiberglass windows and a composite subfloor, fully painted, and equipped with high- and low-voltage electronics before heading to the final assembly line.

“The job is relatively easy,” says Yan, the project manager. “But there’s a lot to do.”

In the final stages of production, BYD workers add flooring, doors, lights, seating, grab handles and more – all of what Yan calls the “cosmetic” elements needed to transform each bus from being drivable to truly being functionable.

As he leads the way to BYD’s testing line, Yan gets sidetracked by one of the plant’s more unique current projects, a 30-foot bus being customized for sightseers in one of the Golden State’s most delightful ocean cities.

This bus, unlike any of the 60 or 65 others also being built right now, includes bench seating – in the beachy colors of tan and blue – to accommodate more passengers than the usual transit bus.

“Santa Barbara is going to use this as a tour bus,” Yan says. “We call it the trolley bus.”

No bus rolls off the BYD lot without passing a final inspection. There are roll and brake tests. A system validation of all electronics – including the battery pack, air conditioning, lights, speakers, even the horn. There’s a high-pressure water test to ensure there’s not a leak.

“Recycled water,” Yan emphasizes. “We’re not going to waste water in the desert.”

The finalization process also includes a full walkaround to check for any potential paint issues or other deficiencies. Each bus, by this point, has been touched by dozens of BYD employees. Some are welders. Some are painters. Some are electricians. All of them are part of a growing workforce.

“I walk past the training room every week and see 15 people in there – every week,” Yan says.

To show its commitment to creating a workforce as capable as its buses, BYD – the Chinese company’s name stands for Build Your Dreams – took an unprecedented step earlier this year by negotiating the first-ever collective bargaining agreement between an electric bus manufacturer and a U.S. labor union, a three-year deal with SMART Local 105 that will stretch into January 2021.

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority is working to convert its entire fleet to electric buses manufactured locally by BYD. Photo submitted by AVTA

All BYD employees will receive wage increases during each year of the CBA and be eligible for health, dental, vision and 401k benefits as part of the agreement. Pay currently begins at $16.50 per hour on the floor in Lancaster and ranges to $24.

The agreement, which Neshati calls a “turning point in American clean-technology manufacturing,” is expected to play a key role in the company’s efforts to build a sustainable, skilled labor force.

“The quality of the end product is improving on a daily basis,” Neshati says. “We started out here three years ago with largely an untrained workforce. We were trying to build buses and train people at the same time. I think we did a really good job of that.”

He adds, “We’ve had our stumbles and falls, and we’ve admitted to them, stood up and dusted ourselves off and made the product right for the customer and then moved on and tried to learn from it. That’s all we can do.”

As challenging as constructing a finely-tuned workforce may just be remembering every job they’re doing at one time.

Inside an office that overlooks the manufacturing facility, where employees are busily shuffling across the floor or moving parts and supplies with BYD-built battery-electric forklifts, Neshati tests his own knowledge.

“What’s out there right now?” he asks.

“Off the top of my head, you’ve got some Antelope Valley buses going through. You have UC Irvine buses going through. Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District. UCSF (University of California, San Francisco). CARTA, which is Nashville. Or, no, that’s Chattanooga, Tennessee.”

He pauses, then asks himself another question, “Tri-Delta’s already on the line?”

The BYD production facility in Lancaster is equipped to build up to 1,500 electric buses each year. Steve Kiggins/SCVBJ

“Stanford?” another voice in the room says.

“Stanford. We’ve got 15 buses for Stanford being built,” Neshati confirms, then adds. “There’s two Atlanta airport buses. The black ones.”

No wonder Meier needs that color-coded piece of paper every day.

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority doesn’t have any hard evidence to support the idea that riders prefer electric buses to diesel buses.

But …

“In the beginning, we were hearing that passengers were actually waiting for the electric bus. Waiting a half an hour so they could ride the electric bus,” says Len Engel, the executive director and chief executive officer who is spearheading AVTA’s historic attempt to assemble the nation’s first fully electric bus fleet.

On the first day of September last year, AVTA became the first transit organization in the world to utilize a 60-foot all-electric articulated bus for revenue service. They’ve since added another 10 60-footers from BYD, plus three 40-foot models to shuttle passengers around Lancaster, Palmdale and the surrounding area.

The AVTA’s Transporter, which provides weekday service into the Santa Clarita Valley, with pick-up and drop-off at the Newhall MetroLink Station, College of the Canyons, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and the McBean Regional Transit Center, is expected to be operating with electric buses by June 2019.

“We have 20 (more) 40-foot buses in the cue now. We have 16 45-foot commuter coaches that they have purchase orders for,” Engel says. “We expect to hear from the state of California (this month) for a (CalSTA) grant that will complete our target. Then it’s a matter of, can BYD push them out the door fast enough?”

While AVTA is motivated to run a cleaner fleet to both reduce air pollutants and minimize reliance on petroleum-based fuels, Engel says there’s another compelling reason for operating with electric buses.

“We’re saving money,” he says.

The interior of an electric bus on the BYD production line. Steve Kiggins/SCVBJ

In addition to realizing profits up to $1 million annually through the state’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard – AVTA’s reimbursement is expected to be higher than its 4-cents-per-kilowatt rate from Lancaster Choice Energy, according to company projections – the transit authority is already realizing preventative maintenance savings of about $1 a mile on older buses, some of which have logged upwards of 800,000 miles, says Engel.

There’s more. “We’re doubling the mileage on tires,” Engel says, noting, specifically, the benefits of BYD’s in-wheel traction motors that have dramatically reduced scuffing on rear tires.

The electric buses will allow AVTA to broaden its local service, too – particularly to the health care sector which, traditionally, hasn’t been willing to allow gassy, noisy diesel buses near its medical facilities. The agency is already “pulling up to the back door” at Kaiser Permanente’s new medical offices on Avenue L, says Engel, plus AVTA is hopeful of forging a partnership with Antelope Valley Hospital.

“We’re starting to talk to them about actually running our buses and our bus routes right through their campus to serve the people that are going to their medical appointments, coming back from the emergency room, etc.,” says Norm Hickling, AVTA’s chief operating officer. “And, again, it’s all predicated on the new technology with the battery-electric, zero-emission buses.”

Also, AVTA has proposed a $1.18 million transit hub adjacent to South Valley Health Center in Palmdale that would feature two inductive charging pads and “enhance and provide additional mobility options for underserved individuals residing in those regions,” according to the agency’s Feb. 28 presentation to the Antelope Valley Healthcare District.

To further improve local connectivity, AVTA is exploring the possibilities of direct service between the two campuses of Antelope Valley College and considering new service models that could include micro transit options in low-density areas.

While AVTA officials bask in greater opportunities to serve their community, Neshati is grateful for BYD’s commitment to a better tomorrow.

“That’s what attracted me back out of retirement, the opportunity to do something really positive and constructive for the planet for a change,” he says. “I’m 63. My generation is largely responsible for polluting this place and getting it to where it is today. If I (have) a chance to make a difference, even in the equivalent of a grain of sand, that would make a difference in my heart.”

In Lancaster, where aerospace and defense has long been the industrial giant, BYD is building a cleaner bus. And training a skilled workforce. And forging relationships to better connect communities.

There is, then, only one problem left to solve.

“There’s no parking,” Meier, the plant manager, says.

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