As the LCO-140H eases to a stop, an unmistakable whining sound emanates from the rear of the 40-foot transit bus. That sound, Altair Engineering's Mike Kidder tells a group of journalists on board, is the sound of a hydraulic pump capturing braking energy to pressurize fluid, which then is used to propel the bus as it re-accelerates.
It also could be the sound of transit authorities saving millions of dollars.
A group of 100 or so government officials, journalists and business leaders gathered on a rainy Wednesday at the world headquarters of Altair Engineering Inc. in Troy, Mich., to see what the product design and development consulting firm says is the world's first series-hybrid hydraulic transit bus.
The LCO-140H, a prototype designed and built at Altair's facility in Troy, averages 6.9 miles per gallon in rigorous stop-and-go duty cycles used by the Federal Transit Administration to certify transit buses.
By comparison, conventional diesel buses average 3.3 miles per gallon, and the best electric hybrid buses average 5.3 miles per gallon, based on the same federal testing protocol.
Factor all of that in and Altair estimates that the LCO-140H will lower the cost of ownership by $170,000 per bus compared with conventional diesel buses, and by more than $250,000 per bus compared with diesel-electric hybrid buses.
That could reduce a city's cost of operating transit buses by approximately $50 million, Altair says, noting that the average local transit authority operates 300 buses.
"There have been many transit authorities out there buying electric hybrid buses," said Mike Heskitt, chief operating officer of Altair ProductDesign Inc., Altair's engineering services division. "They're being good citizens. They're trying to reduce their dependency on oil and lower emissions. But they're paying extra to do this.
"Finally here's a choice, where a transit authority can make those decisions and actually save money too."
Government Agencies, Manufacturers on Board
As for why Altair, which is perhaps best known for its proprietary computer-aided engineering software, decided to develop a transit bus, company founder and CEO Jim Scapa noted he was seeking "a stretch project for our engineering group."
"And I had just read the book 'Competing for the Future,'" Scapa said. "The concept of developing a next-generation city bus looked a great challenge and just the right opportunity."
The goals of the project, which eventually became known as BUSolutions, were to lower the oil dependency, emissions and total cost of ownership of a transit bus, Scapa noted.
"The resulting initial design was extremely good, and attracted some pretty high interest," Scapa said.
In 2005, Altair partnered with Automation Alley, a Detroit-area technology business association, to explore government grant opportunities for the manufacturing and testing of a prototype vehicle. That helped BUSolutions secure a $5.1 million grant project, with additional funding coming from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and other state programs.
"It's essential to recognize the importance of federal- and state-government investments in R&D to spur economic growth and foster innovation," Scapa said Wednesday.
Altair consulted with local transit authorities and rider-advocacy groups to ensure that the bus would comply with regulatory requirements and meet the needs of drivers and riders, and has created an advisory board to study ridership issues and "broader community needs," the firm said.
Using its OptiStruct simulation-driven design program and other CAE tools in its HyperWorks software suite, Altair created a prototype bus with a curb weight of less than 26,000 pounds, which is 10% to 15% lighter than most other transit buses.
The LCO-140H features an all-aluminum body and chassis, which offers a number of advantages, Heskitt said.
"You can take extrusions and make very complex shapes out of it, and combine a lot of the features and functions that you need," he said Wednesday. "It simplifies your assembly process, gives you better quality control, very good dimensional stability, and the tooling costs are very, very low. So that offsets a lot of the material costs."
Other innovations include the use of balsa-core laminate material on the floor and roof; thin-profile seats with lightweight composite stanchions; LED interior lighting; disc brakes on all wheels; an ergonomically designed driver's seat with generous sight lines; and a high-capacity cooling system that draws clean air from the top of the bus (as opposed to system in many transit buses that pull in air from near the curb, where the air is hot and dirty).
While Altair spearheaded the design of the LCO-140H, the company partnered with a who's who of transportation-sector OEMs and suppliers for the vehicle technology, including Parker Hannifin, Meritor, PRAN, Alcoa Wheels, Cummins Bridgeway, Tenneco and Williams Control.
"It's been a wonderful success story and I'm looking forward to the next step, which is potentially the largest step," said Walter Kulyk, director of the Federal Transit Administration's Office of Mobility Innovation, who was on hand Wednesday. "And that is commercialization and ultimately deployment.
"It's one thing to bring the best engineering minds to the table and to develop a workable product, and that's what Altair Engineering has done. Now the tough thing ahead of us as a team -- and I think the FTA is part of that -- is how do you deploy this technology in the conservative marketplace that is public transit."
'A Sustainable Business Model'
In an interview with IndustryWeek, Heskitt said Altair is pursuing a plan to commercialize the LCO-140H.
Although Altair would not manufacture the buses, the firm would like to partner with an OEM and provide engineering services, he said.
The initial plan would be to produce about 400 buses each year in a single-shift operation, he said. He estimated that some 5,000 buses are purchased each year in the United States.
"It's a sustainable business model," Heskitt said. "If we can offer a very good product with a much better ROI and lower [transit authorities'] dependency on fuel, we'd feel like there's a good space for us in the market."